Since Sophocles’ tales of Oedipus and Antigone, theatregoers have revelled in the dramas of dysfunctional families.
Things I Know to be True is dysfunction on a smaller scale – there’s no eyeball mutilation or inadvertent incest here – but the collaboration between State Theatre Company, South Australian playwright Andrew Bovell and the London-based Frantic Assembly nevertheless deals with a family torn apart by differences and held together by blood.
After an obligatory gap-year tootle around Europe, Rosie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, young star of the films 52 Tuesdays and One Eyed Girl) returns to her suburban Adelaide home and her much-missed family: mum Fran (Eugenia Fragos), dad Bob (Paul Blackwell), sister Pip (Georgia Adamson), and brothers Ben (Nathan O’Keefe) and Mark (Tim Walter).
They all gather to greet her, but it’s not long before Pip and Fran start arguing. It’s the first of the many dramas that go to prove (as Mark says later in the play) that the family Rosie thought she could rely on is, in fact, “f***ed up, like most families”.
As various emotional crises drive family members physically and mentally apart, Fran (the suppressed rage at the eye of the storm) struggles to pull them back together. It’s no mean task and it takes its toll; the play culminates in a drama that no-one saw coming.
Bovell’s script is given a muscular physicality under the direction of Geordie Brookman from State Theatre and Scott Graham from Frantic Assembly, a company renowned for its vibrant physical interpretations of text. Characters are fleshed out via monologue while actors are pulled in or out of coats, a table is whooshed across the stage or a chair spun in the air to land, just in time, under someone’s lowered behind.
This progressive theatrical approach occasionally seems incongruous with the script but for the most part it serves to raise the play from amusing family drama to theatre par excellence. There are some truly beautiful moments where physical movement and textual delivery become intimate and intuitive dance partners.
Geoff Cobham’s superb set design also brings to life the garden that is the symbolic setting for much of the play’s action. The ethereal backdrop (a monochrome image of tangled branches) suggests family trees as well as the Tree of Knowledge, while much of the foreground is constructed during the play, with actors wheeling on barrows of earth to fill raised beds and plant rose bushes.
Things I Know to be True is both funny and tragic, although the story has an almost soap-opera obsession with current issues. Gender confusion, sexual inequality, redundancy, embezzlement: it ticks all the right boxes but it ticks them a little too noisily. Thankfully, excellent performances – from Cobham-Hervey and O’Keefe, in particular – along with innovative directorial decisions, make it a play worth seeing.
Things I Know to be True is playing at The Dunstan Playhouse until June 4.
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