State Theatre Company South Australia. The Space Theatre. 3 May 2023
Playwright Duncan Macillan is probably best known for co-writing the stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 a few years back. He also penned People, Places and Things to get the discussion going on drug and alcohol addition and recovery. That went so well – Best New Play at the Olivier Awards in 2015. But before that, he tackled suicidality with a short story that he subsequently developed with co-writer and British comedian, writer and performer, Jonny Donahue into Every Brilliant Thing. Donahue has played the role in this one-hander 600 times, but in Adelaide, Jimi Bani smashes it with his sensitive, quirky, kind and gently wry expressiveness. Bani made his formidable presence known in State’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last year.
Reading the playwrights’biographies, along with that of local director, Yasmin Gurreeboo, they are like-minded in their strong desires to deliver meaningful theatre about the hardest issues of personal tragedy with an ardent belief that theatre ought to be transformational.
Every Brilliant Thing is absolutely charming and engaging in its concept and execution. Jimi Bani, simply by entering the stage, has the audience in the palm of his hand. We see a young boy’s introduction to unfathomable unhappiness complete with incomprehension, guilt and an aching desire to help. Help comes in the form of writing down every brilliant thing in the world. A list to show Mum life is worth living. The list starts: 1, and an audience member calls out a brilliant thing. Then 2, 3, 4…531, 532…789… more brilliant things; you guess how many. They are not all spoken, of course, but you get the drift. The boy has counselling at school by a councillor’s hand puppet so he is reached. The boy grows up and the list gets longer. Her love life blossoms but there is a shadow. 11,278…11,279. Mum has a second attempt. 538,675, 538,676…
The theatre space is set up with bleachers on four sides, and the lights are kept on throughout. There is nowhere to hide. Audience members are selected in the most solicitous, non-threatening way to participate as say, the father, the girlfriend, the mother…no, she is never seen. The fight or flight mode get switched off and audience members are amazingly co-operative and even helpful. Everybody loves what’s going on.
And it wouldn’t be this way without Jimi Bani’s gifts. He’s a rather large man with a great sense of rhythm shown by enviable dance steps in a plethora of styles and, you would think it’s not possible to demonstrate a love of music without actually loving music. There are plenty of tunes because our life - everyone’s life it seems - is signposted with songs. He even got a young woman to get down on one knee and propose to him in their characters. By this time, I think anybody in the swooning audience would have done anything for him. There is a euphoria of participation and eager to laugh and a few moments later to wipe away a tear from the warmth or the sadness in sympathy with the struggle.
The script moves between amusement and message with ease. There is a showstopping, “Don’t do it,” and then on the play travels to some Lifeline advice and inbetween there is the excitement of the list. Bani and Gurreeboo know when to pause, to laugh, to bring the audience into the intimacy, to encourage an understanding of the ramifications of suicide on the remaining loved ones symbolised by this man’s experience from seven and for a lifetime.
This is my second State Theatre opening this week – the other being Prima Facie – and both earned enthusiastic standing ovations. I am with them. Bravo!
When: 28 Apr to 13 May
Where: The Space Theatre