By Akanksha Raja
(870 words, 8-minute read)
Every Brilliant Thing is a (primarily) one-person monologue of an unnamed narrator (Andrew Marko) coming to terms with his mother’s depression and suicidal tendencies. His effort to reconcile with his mother’s instability takes the form of a numbered list devised at the age of 6 – after her (first?) suicide attempt – of every happy thing in the world worth living for. Over the course of his life, and of the play, the list of brilliant things is continually abandoned and revisited, but grows slowly and valiantly to a million.
The play, written by Duncan Macmillan with contributions from comedian Johnny Donahoe, who originated the lead, has been a world-wide success. In the Singapore production and other versions around the world, the play is described as being about depression, “tackling” depression. But as the mother’s personal perspective is never directly spoken of, its focus lies not so much with the first-hand experience of the psychological condition. We enter from the sidelines, through the eyes of a child. His response is a wonder of childlike optimism in the beauty of even the most mundane things in the world, and in the power of the same to stave off the shadow monsters. This suffuses the play with lightness and humour, which accounts for its popular success.
What helps to realise this message further is the reliance on significant audience participation within an in-the-round setting (director Shaifulbahri Mohamad kept much of the play’s original structure). It involves us more intimately in the life story we are privy to. Prior to the performance, audience members are given a different “brilliant thing” to shout when the corresponding number is called out. Audience as co-performer also reinforces the truth that we could in real life have parts to play in the lives of others affected by depression or other struggles and gently prods one to wonder about how sensitively to respond even to questions beyond one’s depth. For example, one audience member was called up to play the narrator’s college professor of Victorian literature, being questioned over Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and its alleged link to suicide cases.
Other instances of audience interaction seem quite twee, such as the re-enactment of the proposal from the narrator’s “girlfriend” chosen from the audience, and when the narrator’s father is called up to give an impromptu toast at the wedding. In another scene two spectators hold up an electronic keyboard, rotating slowly as the narrator performs an impressive playlist of songs (from Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah to Coldplay’s The Scientist). Such scenes make a purely playful divergence from the average theatre-going experience, just for cheer and feel-good fun, and it works as such.
Perhaps it works too well.
The narrator’s list began with a specific purpose: to rid his mother of her depression and to give her reasons to stay alive, but she eventually succumbs to suicide. The narrator laments, towards the play’s closure, “How could I imagine that a list could beat something so hardwired as depression?”, noting elsewhere that crushing depression is unavoidable in life unless “you haven’t been paying attention.” It appears that it’s been hard wired into him too: as he grows into adulthood, the list and its power recedes and he falls into a depression. However, he returns to the list, growing it to a million in a battle against the darkness.
I felt however that the play runs close to watering down the delicate subject matter – intricate, complex experiences of pain and confusion seem anecdotal to the overall mood of humour. Depth is eschewed for breadth as one gets a sense of some pivotal moments in the span of the narrator’s life that compel a return to the list – but rarely the full weight of sadness or struggle in the characters within these moments.
While it is implied the narrator may be suffering from a similar strain as an adult, the interiority of depression – physiological symptoms, suicidal ideation, etc. – is not broached. This was exacerbated by Marko’s performance. Marko excelled at the chipper moments. They play to his strengths as a performer: confidence, charisma, warmth, boundless energy. In the darker moments, which are crucial for us to buy into the character’s own struggles, he performs a narrator retelling his experiences in retrospect, not quite re-inhabiting and re-living the character at the key scenes. The rest of the script borders on cutesy at moments, but Marko’s performance keeps it grounded as he steers clear of oversentimentality while keeping upbeat throughout.
A key transposition of this performance from the original UK version, that wasn’t quite fleshed out, is the relocation of the narrative into a Singaporean context. The sporadic name-dropping of Singaporean elements (moving to Jurong, for example, or the inclusion of Adrian Pang in the list) felt a little incongruent, instead of locating the story in a stronger, deeper local milieu. Or perhaps it is my prior knowledge of the play’s origins that made it feel less believable.
Then again, if the past is a story we tell ourselves, each retelling to a new audience is different, and it is just a way of reshaping a story “closer to home”, to make its message personable, its characters believable and its themes universal.
“Every Brilliant Thing: 1000 Amazing Things and The Gift of Andrew Marko” by Dawn Teo (Popspoken)
“Review: Every Brilliant Thing by Bhumi Collective” by bakchormeeboy
“Multi-tasking at work in one-man show” by Akshita Nanda (The Straits Times)
“Every Brilliant Thing” by Jocelyn Chng (Centre 42)