A catalogue against dejection

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 15.11.2019

Judging by the number of plays performed in vacant properties, one could think that housing wasn’t an issue in this country. For their second production, the Volleksbühn has cast aside the proletarian connotations of their name and decided to stage a show in an empty mansion in the Cents quarter, replete with indoor swimming pool and marble floors. Class issues are, however, largely moot on this evening, which deals with the more pervasive topics of depression and suicide. The uninitiated may expect nothing less than a performance of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis from a theatre collective to whose name so much radical chic is attached. Yet, as already established, names can be deceiving.

The Volleksbühn’s new performance series is titled carte grise and offers artists unlimited creative freedom on a limited budget (hence the choice of colour). For its inauguration, the honour went to Sally Merres, who picked Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing for her directorial debut. Since its premiere in 2013, Macmillian’s play has become something of a sensation; it’s even been televised by HBO. Mixing comedy, drama and quasi-documentary sections, Every Brilliant Thing features a single actor and a simple premise: The unnamed protagonist is trying to cope with his mother’s recent suicide by completing a list he started compiling when he was seven, in an attempt to cheer her up after her first suicide attempt.

It’s a list of all the little things that make life worth living, starting with “1. ice cream” and running into triple digits and beyond via such items as “staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV” and “the fact that Beyoncé and Gustav Mahler are eighth cousins, four times removed”. Before the performance, audience members are given index cards featuring one of these items on them. During the performance, which lasts roughly one hour, they are cued by the protagonist to read them aloud while he narrates episodes from his life. And, there is more audience interaction, since all additional roles – a vet, the protagonist’s father, his girlfriend Sam, a former teacher – are played by patrons in the theatre, chosen ad-hoc by the main character for walk-on parts.

With so many variables and unknowns dictating the course of the evening, it seems clear that a substantial directorial task lies in casting the right actor, someone who will not only carry a one-hour “solo” show but also manage (on the show’s opening night) around fifty inadvertent co-stars. In this, the Volleksbühn’s production of Every Brilliant Thing has succeeded: Isaac Bush proves himself to be an versatile and adaptable actor who has seemingly already won the audience over while distributing index cards before the show’s start.

Incidentally, in that brief period the audience has the chance to walk through parts of the mansion, whose atrociously painted library functions as the theatre lobby. One can discover objects scattered around that later function as props, the symbolism of a couple of Sylvia Plath books placed on shelves being somewhat heavy-handed. During the play, the audience remains seated (expect for those asked to act) in the spacious living room, while Bush paces up and down in their midst, sometimes moves into adjacent rooms and in one scene out onto the patio. Sadly, the pool area, which houses a large-scale modernist portrait, isn’t put to much use.

It is the actor who’s almost wholly responsible for the show’s dynamic. The lighting is rather subdued, using only subtle changes to accentuate certain parts. Music is slightly more prominent as it features in key episodes of the protagonist’s narrative, being played on a portable turntable (Ray Charles) or emanating from some distant room (Daniel Johnston). Occasionally, voice recordings are played over speakers and the lights dimmed. Oddly, these moments seem more like intermissions than integral parts of the play.

Every Brilliant Thing works best when it segues wildly differing moods and genres, going from a stand-up comedy routine to an introspective monologue in the blink of an eye. The play has its overly didactic moments: readings from suicide statistics or the ethics code on how to report on suicides in the media. Still, they serve their purpose within its aim of conceiving of suicide as a “social contagion”, a contagion that can only be counter-acted by spreading a different, uplifting and life-affirming kind of message. That is what this show does with its participative and communal spirit. Cleary, Sarah Kane this is not. One may find Duncan Macmillan mawkish and naïve in places, yet it’s hard to resist this evening’s charm. And it’s hard to resist Isaac Bush’s infectious performance.

Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan, directed by Sally Merres; with Isaac Bush; a Volleksbühn- production; premiered on November 9th at 186, rue de Trèves, Luxembourg. No further performances; information:

Jeff Thoss
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