THE original production of Duncan McMillan and John Donahue‘s Every Brilliant Thing is still touring. But a Malaysian staging of the critically-acclaimed play recently previewed to rave reviews from industry guests.
Starring Qahar Aqilah (R+J, Angels In America) under the direction of Christopher Ling (Titus Andronicus, Love and Information), the local premiere of Every Brilliant Thing opens this Thursday. Tickets have started moving fast — fans of theatre best secure a seat through the official ticketing system.
But what is the play about and why is it inciting such strong reaction?
You’re 7 years old. Mum’s in hospital. Dad says that she’s “done something stupid.” She finds it hard to be happy. You start a list of everything that’s brilliant about the world. Everything worth living for. You leave it on her pillow. You know she’s read it because she’s corrected your spelling.
“Everyone is susceptible to depression,” observes Chris over coffee. “And it’s not something you can take pills for and it will go away forever.”
Hinting of levels of poignancy rarely felt in local theatre, this latest production by Theatrethreesixty will tackle depression head on. But it goes further than simply presenting the acclaimed script — on top of localising the play’s references, the company has even collaborated with non-governmental organisation Befrienders KL to engage the community on the subject of mental health.
Chris stops to consider the number of Malaysians who have experienced depression in today’s day and age — we assume there and then, no less than a million. However, a National Health and Morbidity Survey held last year estimated 29 percent of Malaysians suffer from depression and anxiety disorders.
Dubbed “one of the funniest plays you’ll ever see about depression” by British newspaper The Guardian, Every Brilliant Thing uses humour to ease access to its darker themes.
John Donahue in a chat with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) explained that the intention of the show was to be communal and funny about a particularly difficult topic.
We wanted to talk about depression, and I think the only way you can really do that is to laugh and to share and be joyful.
— John Donahue
Central to the performance is a very special list and some unique tricks up the playwrights’ sleeves.
“Different people have different coping mechanisms,” Chris elaborates. “In Every Brilliant Thing, our seven year-old unnamed character’s mother attempted suicide.”
“While his mother is in hospital, he writes down a list of brilliant things to be happy about to give to her. The first list he writes at the age of seven has 314 things on it.”
This list however is more than a mere prop; actor and audiences alike will be working through the list together. Every Brilliant Thing is an interactive performance, and it requires audience participation in order to progress.
“When the play is brought to life in this improvvy style, audiences are kept alive and active throughout,” exclaims Chris.
“There are also contingency plans written into the play to help the performer get things back on track. We still have a limited runtime and this is where Qahar’s improv skills come in handy.”
As mentioned in performing arts portal Arteri, each show will pit lead actor Qahar against an unknown cast of 20, handpicked from the audience. This results in an organically different show each night — potentially an actor’s nightmare.
But for Qahar, acting coach extraordinaire and founding member of Artificially Intelligent: Improvholics Anonymous (AIIA), many would assume the play’s format is nothing but a playground.
“My last production which required improv was Shear Madness,” Qahar states nonchalantly. “This play will pose its own problems, but I’ve had plenty of practise in improv.”
While the notion of improvisation scares plenty away, Qahar has always embraced the idea that acting is improvisation.
His well-received turn in interactive murder-mystery Shear Madness for instance had multiple endings which result from each evening’s flow of events.
“It doesn’t matter even if it’s Shakespeare… Once you take away the idea of ad-libbing as the only way to improvise, being in the moment with another actor is also a form of improvisation. There’s always some of it in whatever work I’ve done on the stage.”
Qahar last took to the stage in Theatresauce‘s Antigone four months ago. The experienced actor has worked with Chris on several productions including the six-hour theatre extravaganza Angels In America, but both first met back in 2001 during an audition.
Fifteen years on, Qahar’s relationship with Chris has reached a new level of understanding. He also believes Chris has matured in some aspects in the workplace — things are put together more efficiently while there is an increase in conviction — but some things remain unchanged.
“It’s the arts; you don’t want to be too mature,” Qahar chuckles. “But it’s that new place he’s in: you can see it in Chris’s surer hands and his openness to new ideas and processes. It’s not like laissez-faire-do-whatever-you-want, but as long as you come in with strong ideas and a desire to experiment, Chris is willing to give you an opportunity.”
With regards to the play’s structure, Chris claims that nobody’s trying to toy around with the original script. The whole team is sticking close to the playwright’s instructions — Qahar describes the text as “clearly written with a lot of footnotes”.
The Malaysian premiere of Every Brilliant Thing is also set to showcase a jazz soundtrack complete with local additions: up-and-coming musician Shaun Chen will contribute the show’s theme track and soundscape. Every Brilliant Thing‘s original soundtrack consists of songs dear to the protagonist’s father, and is currently available to listen on Spotify.
Every Brilliant Thing will take place from 10 – 20 November at Theatrethreesixty at Tommy Le Baker, A-1-5, Viva Residence, 3rd Mile Jalan Ipoh, 51200 Kuala Lumpur. Secure yourself tickets to the show via Tixipro and make sure to check out Theatrethreesixty on Facebook for more details.