Little Things Do Plenty: A Review of Every Brilliant Thing

Photo Credit: Tarrant Kwok

Every Brilliant Thing (2017 Restage)

Produced by theatrethreesixty
2 – 12 February 2017
Tommy Le Baker, Kuala Lumpur


REVIEW by Al Zaquan

A boy is driven to the hospital to see his mother. She has survived her first suicide attempt; he is 7 years old. Our narrator (the boy) recounts the car ride with his father. He is told to put on his seatbelt, and responds simply: “…why?” To every banal instruction and subsequent explanation, he persists with “…why?” It is clear to us that he senses the gravity of what has happened but lacks the emotional tools to truly understand it. It’s around this time he starts listing Every Brilliant Thing he can think of.

The list starts with ‘ice cream’ and frames a big part of the 80 minutes of this one-man play performed by Qahar Aqilah. The boy who enjoys ‘Milo and biscuits’ and ‘mandi bogel’ becomes a young adult who feigns sophistication (‘Christopher Walken’s voice’ eventually makes the list). The addition of these bits of locality by Qahar and director Christopher Ling brings our narrator’s story closer to this specific audience, evoking a collective sentimentality for certain things or experiences we might have recognized from our own childhoods.

Photo credit Tarrant Kwok

As our narrator grows, he is pulled in, still, by the gravitational force of his mother’s depression. The confusion of the child at the start matures into verbal whiplash; after another suicide attempt, our teenaged narrator yells at his mother, “You took three days worth of sleeping pills! If you really want to kill yourself, why don’t you go jump off a bridge!”

Her depression sends the family into their own silos. Our narrator is a nervous observer for most of it, appearing fearful of the adult climate of home. He learns to read his father’s emotional state from behind a closed door. He listens for Billie Holiday’s voice on the record player, which would mean he’d be welcome in. Meanwhile, his mother’s feelings were not as opaque, but they were consistent; it becomes clear to us that her depression is a plain and unremarkable reality. She has an affinity for Ray Charles’ Drown in My Own Tears and the part that sticks to the narrator is the you in “It keeps raining more and more, why don’t you come on home.” The song is naked with need, ending with “If you don’t think you’ll be home soon, I’ll drown in my own tears.” That our narrator remembers these benevolent little things about her, I believe, echoes the mercy we have for the people we love.

The characters apart from our narrator are fleshed out by the specifics he observes – the music they listen to, the books they read – and we understand how he has relied on words as a navigational tool. Still, the abundance of words and language (“The alphabet” eventually makes his list) do not do much for his mother’s declining state, or his own efforts to know its nature. The narrator, at moments, signals to us that this is a thing that defies comprehension. Qahar in the role expresses defeat through small gestures – an eye roll, a long sigh, a look to the floor.

Every Brilliant Thing #2

A unique trait of Every Brilliant Thing is its insistence on audience participation. A few of us were given key rings that held printed cards with numbered items that made up the narrator’s list of joy-giving things. We were called on to read aloud from the cards, but on occasion some of us were brought forward to play a character in the narrator’s life. We found ourselves having to get down on one knee to propose marriage, give an impromptu wedding speech, or play a lecturer explaining a book to a classroom of students. Some of the audience members were understandably puzzled or nervous in these parts, but they were always earnest and remained, even in these roles, keen observers of the narrator’s story. Somewhere towards the end, now alone and wrestling with his own demons, the narrator calls on his childhood counsellor to ask, “Was I always like this?” An improvised reply by an audience member roped in for the part echoed a few other moments of rogue and quiet tenderness in this otherwise verbose play: “Not always.”

Our narrator marries Sam, a girl he first meets at a library. They get to know each other through exchanging the books that matter to them, sharing with each other details about themselves articulated only through verses and stories. Eventually, his own depression isolates him from Sam, and she leaves. In the same way his mother’s depression kept her opaque from other people, the narrator becomes inscrutable to Sam. In both instances, the exact why and how of depression is not explained. It just is.

In this way, Every Brilliant Thing does not mean to say anything exceptional or spectacular about depression and mental illness. But I believe for the play to shed light on its ordinary and everyday nature is just a little subversive.

Photos by Tarrant Kwok & Al Zaquan

Every Brilliant Thing was written by Duncan Macmillan and originally performed by Jonny Donahue. The play was first staged at the Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013. It toured the UK and had a run in the off-Broadway Barrow Street Theatre in 2015, and a recording of the latter went on to become a film that was broadcast on HBO shortly after Christmas last year.

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