This review contains spoilers, discussion of transphobia and trauma.
Early in the Black Swan Theatre Company’s presentation of Andrew Bovell’s family drama Things I Know to Be True, the youthful Rosie (Laura Shaw), presents a monologue about her search for that feeling of being ‘alive’ in Berlin. She talks of an aching feeling inside her heart which is pulling her towards some kind of monumental emotional experience, one that might demarcate her youth from her adulthood and set her on her life’s journey. During the monologue, which Shaw presents with an immersive, vivid immediacy, Rosie talks about how she has never felt truly ‘alive’ in her home suburb of Booragoon, which is part of the reason she’s traipsed halfway around the world to seek an experience that will give her just that.
Rosie is the youngest child of Bob (Humphrey Bower) and Fran (Caroline Brazier) Price and the last one to ‘fly the coop,’ as it is. The reality of life hasn’t arrived to drag her to the ground as of yet, even though her older siblings have all had some kind of emotional event that has fortified who they are as individuals, away from the vision their parents had of who they will become.
The staging of Things I Know to Be True is novel and immersive, with a brick-based rose bed, an all too familiar glass sliding door (replete with the little moon symbols to stop wayward souls from walking through them, even though we all know a family member who has done just that, drunk or sober), and a kitchen bench that looks over the imagined garden vista being the main staging elements we see. The cast rotate the elements between scenes, depending on the staging requirements, giving the impression that we’re not just observing this white Aussie family, but instead have been invited to stand at the kitchen bench with them.
It’s that invitation that initially makes Things I Know to Be True feel familiar and relatable, as Rosie’s monologue rings true with many nineties kids who left school and took a gap year that was meant to act as a launching pad into university, but instead ending being a tumble into a directionless life.
For the Boomers and Gen X’rs in the audience, they have Bob and Fran to relate to. Bob is a reluctantly retired sheet metal fabricator, pushed out of a job he held for over thirty years when he was in his late fifties. He now tends to his roses, lamenting the presence of a giant gum tree (hinted at, but only seen in the haunting final moments) that looms over the house that Fran adores. Its leaves tumble into the yard, creating a continual bother for Bob who reluctantly uses a leaf blower, all the while complaining that a rake would do a better job. Like Rosie, he’s a directionless figure adrift in life, somewhat comfortable in the level of stagnation he finds himself in, all the while, quietly terrified of change. Humphrey Bower’s turn as Bob will transport audiences into their own family homes, as he masterfully realises the experience of seeing your father pottering around. His life once meant raising kids, supporting his wife, and working to pay off a mortgage early; now, it’s ensuring that his roses make it through another season.
Caroline Brazier impressively conjures decades of exhaustion in the vision of Fran, a mother and nurse. Even though it’s only Rosie who still lives at home, Fran still dotes on her other children, offloading prepared spaghetti and lasagne when they come round, and ironing business shirts for her son, Ben (Will O’Mahony), even though he’s more than capable of doing it himself in his late twenties. That continual mothering cycle means Fran never gets a break, causing untoward tension and judgement that is directed at her children.
For Pip (brilliantly realised by Emma Jackson), the experience of being the oldest child weighs heavy on her shoulders, with the impact of a mother who criticised and curtailed Pip in her youth, badgering her into being a ‘better’ person than she ended up being. Pip’s relationship with her husband Steve (never seen, often referenced) is failing. Years of marriage and the presence of children is not enough for Pip to overcome the feeling of simply being ‘fond’ of her husband, and emotion that barely conjures any excitement for tackling the troubles of the day with the person you’re supposed to spend the rest of your life with.
We first meet Pip as she sits in her parents’ yard late at night. She’s staring at the gum tree, thinking about when she was younger when she witnessed her mother bashing her head against its trunk. It’s clear that Pip is also envisioning a future where she won’t end up on a similar path. This devastating moment is one that creates an emotional aftershock that the rest of the play struggles to recover from.
As parents, Bob and Fran would likely say they’re not truly religious, there’s enough of a remnant of a Christian-adjacent upbringing that causes them both to lead a semi-religious kind of life. They encourage monogamy and truth telling. They abhor stealing. Bob particularly dislikes swearing, even though Fran frivolously engages in spitting curse words in spiteful and horrid ways.
While the performances and the direction are excellent, what hampers Things I Know to Be True the most is its structure, with each scene framed around an ‘issue of the week’ dilemma that each of the four children are going through: divorce, a search for purpose, financial malfeasance, and discovering one’s true gender identity. This removes the organic and cohesive familial unit feeling the Price family should have, and instead makes each of the children feel like an issue personified for Bob and Fran to react to.
Unsurprisingly, Bob and Fran comfortably engage in transphobic nimbyism where they attempt to ‘both sides’ the situation by saying words along the lines of ‘I don’t mind if people do that, just not my own children.’ Which makes the reveal at the end of the first act feel both insensitive and poorly handled.
Here, we see Mia (Kaz Kane) come out to their parents as being transgender; yet, Bovell’s script never uses the word ‘transgender’, instead leaving both Bob and Fran to throw around caustic and scarring words about transitioning, with Fran pointedly using transphobic terms to both hurt and demean her daughter. Bob and Fran furiously refuse to call Mia a woman, instead blaming her for ‘the son they will lose’. Yet, in the face of hate and anger and the active condemnation of her existence, Mia shows her parents love, later commenting that ‘they’ll come round.’
Kaz Kane is truly great here, giving a performance that navigates the difficult and painful terrain that comes with coming out to your family. Yet, they’re let down by Bovell’s script which treats her reveal as less of a character-building moment for Mia, and more as ‘the fears of boomer parents brought to life,’ with the text hinting at Bob and Fran’s generation being too old to understand the complexities of trans identities.
The Black Swan Theatre Company deserves recognition for casting a trans non-binary actor in the role, however, the program deadnames the character, maintaining the ‘gotcha’ feeling that comes with the characters reveal. Also, while there are trigger warnings for grief and loss on the main page, there is no forewarning for the transphobia that exists within the characters in the play. That information is available in the ‘additional show information‘ field, however given that page may contain spoilers, I’m unsure how many will click on it. In the session that I attended, I saw one audience member who was left shaken by the experience, and while they returned after the intermission, I did hear them mention to their friend that they were unsure if they could stick with the play.
Judy Virago wrote about the Aotearoa (New Zealand) presentation of the play, commenting on ‘Why We Need Trans People Telling Trans Stories’, “[…] Why [aren’t] there more roles where trans folk just get to present one gender? […] Listen, we all love a reveal but this one is getting tired. I’m sick of stories (told from outside of our experiences) that use gender transition as the hook.”
I understand that after the play was first launched in 2016 that there has been extensive consultation from Bovell with the trans community to ensure that when theatre companies present this text that they’re doing so with care and consideration, however, the cruelty within these scenes and the unwavering love that Mia has for her parents defies that earnestness. At its core, Things I Know to Be True is still a transgender story written by a cisgender writer, reinforcing the notion of when a trans story is not a trans story at all.
I was immediately reminded of another cisgender WA writer, Craig Silvey, whose 2020 novel Honeybee received immense acclaim. After reading that well written but painful book, I was left to question just why cisgender writers are so drawn to stories about transitioning. Is it the drama of the reveal? Is it the notion that they might be able to play with the heightened emotions that a family may go through? Why is it that they can only see the drama and the pain, rather than the person at the centre of the joy or the anguish of coming out as trans?
If it feels like I’m nit-picking over one detail, then note that I only do so because, for the most part, Things I Know to Be True is a powerful theatre experience. Bovell is an extremely talented writer, with flashes of that brilliance appearing throughout his script, particularly in moments where he manages to divine echoes of memories out of the audience’s mind, gifting them to the director and cast to bring to life with vivid reality on stage.
A late argument between Ben and Bob is terrifyingly realised as Bob throws a guttural ‘fuck you’ at Ben over the reveal of his criminal actions. Kate Champion’s assured direction in this moment is particularly worth highlighting, with her guidance giving Will O’Mahony, Humphrey Bower, and Caroline Brazier each the space to bring forth one of the most dreaded moments for a parent and a child: the first time you have a verbally violent and hateful argument with one another. As the sound of that fury flooded the auditorium, I was immediately transported back to my own parents’ house where I’ve had similarly heated arguments, and I was left trembling.
That feeling of bringing our own experiences to a play to bridge the emotional divide is not an uncommon one, leading Things I Know to Be True to thrive on those shared experiences that we all may have had. While the cast is uniformly great, they’re given characters that are spread too thin, leading to the amplified notion that we only get to know them by the traumatic event that has defined who they are.
As the house lights rose after the moving conclusion, a fellow audience member sobbed into their eucalyptus drops behind me, uttering “That was hard hitting.” I gathered myself, wondering about the difficulties they had felt during their life. I wondered about their rose garden and how they tended to it as the seasons went on. Other people’s yards are fascinating things, but they only tell so much. Sometimes the arguments or moments of ecstasy spill swoon over the fence line of our neighbours’ yards, making the sound of the highest, or lowest, point in their life a communal event for the whole neighbourhood.
Things I Know to Be True has travelled the world, with the suburbs of Adelaide the Midwest of America standing in on each occasion, and here that suburb is Booragoon. The text has been adjusted slightly to become regionally specific, with a nod to how the drive from the airport along Roe Highway is supposed to be quicker than Leach Highway but ends up costing more.
As I made my way to my car, I pondered about what the suburb of Booragoon meant to the play. I’ve lived in this suburb for the better part of almost thirty years. I’ve seen it change and morph into the affluent suburb it now is. Decades ago, it had a tavern where families would meet and play pool and kids would sleep under the bar tables as their parents got drunk, quietly being ferried to the back of the car as they took the back streets home. That tavern no longer exists, having been replaced by the bus port.
That’s the world that Bob and Fran grew up in, the world where they knew they’d bought a home in Booragoon, a suburb that wasn’t the prime real estate of Applecross, nor was it the Homeswest housing of Brentwood. It was the land that invited the working class. Bob talks about paying off his home, creating an unknown nest egg for Fran and himself, while Fran’s job as a nurse has given her a longevity she may not have found elsewhere. If I were to make an educated guess, she would likely work at a private hospital, possibly St John of God Murdoch, a mere five-minute drive from Booragoon, making the ending of the play an even greater tragedy.
Where Bovell used the lantana bush as a metaphor in Lantana, its tangled structure encompassing those who fall into its grasp, here he uses a giant gum tree as a metaphor for life. You never know what path it will bend and reach into the sky. Unlike a rose bush, a gum tree defies maintenance. You can’t easily curate its growth. You can’t neatly shape it into existence in the way that a rose bush can be. It’s unpredictable and unwieldly. It is impractical for ornate gardens. It nourishes and provides shades, just as it drops leaves and the occasional widow making branch. Yet, the gum tree is more than a metaphor, as Fran excitedly talks about tearing up Bob’s well-manicured rose bushes and planting a native garden. He retorts in disgust, ‘a native garden!’, as if it would be a blemish on the memory of his blessed rose bushes.
My suburb has changed. The skyline has changed. The gum trees I’ve seen grow and shape the vista over the decades are now being pulped. The houses where the family memories have been torn down, replaced by boundary-to-boundary homes with nary a garden bed in sight. Things I Know to Be True speaks of the suburbs, of the ‘forgotten Australian’s’ that certain groups of politicians love to talk about, but it’s also speaking of the past. These entities are now fading out of existence, being replaced by changed suburbs that push our society in different directions.
The gum trees no longer protect our lives with shade or comfort. They no longer act as homes for the birds who would sit on their branches, calling out across the suburb to one another, acting as auditory buffers for our arguments or moment of bliss. And maybe, most devastatingly so, they no longer act as time markers for our lives where we can look at them and recall the day they were planted, some twenty years ago, and are able to reflect on all those moments where we didn’t realise we were living, but actually were.
At its core, Things I Know to Be True is the story of how a heart collectively breaks. If I’m being reductive, it’s pointedly a reminder about learning to appreciate every moment you have in your life. It’s about discarding your prejudices and saving both yourself and the person you care about the time of pain of enduring the divide that has come between you both. If I continue being reductive, I will presume that it’s for the older audiences that that message would resonate the most. This is a play for parents whose vision of where they intended their children’s lives to go has failed to align with where they end up.
Director: Kate Champion
Cast: Humphrey Bower, Caroline Brazier, Emma Jackson, Kaz Kane, Will O’Mahony, Laura Shaw
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