Review by Carly Fisher
Truth. It’s a simple concept but can often prove much harder in execution. Who determines what the truth is? How do we protect that truth? And how much of what we read is honestly, the truth?
Answering these questions, Gordon Farrell, Jeremy Kareken and David Murrell have written a fast paced, witty, clever script based on the book by two of the focal characters, John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, that is expertly brought to life by Paige Rattray in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Lifespan of A Fact.
Seemingly responding to the old proverb, ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story,’ the show is an intellectual feast of a three-hander play that follows the editing process of a high profile article for a reputable magazine. If you just read that quick description and wondered how a fact checking edit could make for interesting theatre, I strongly urge you to see this production to see how a, quite frankly, dull concept can be done with such flair when in the hands of esteemed writers such as Farrell, Kareken and Murrell.
As the curtain rises, we find a clarinet player sitting on a staircase to nowhere. The inclusion of the musician throughout the piece is a stylised and beautifully artistic choice by Rattray and perfectly composed and designed by Maria Alfonsine. Housed within the wonderful Roslyn Packer theatre (in my opinion, one of the best theatres in Sydney), Rattray plays with both the depth and width of the stage on offer to her by removing the wings and exposing the stage. Later when characters are to be traditionally ‘off stage,’ we see them stand with their backs to the audience but still in plain sight. Ordinarily, I think this would annoy me honestly but not here, here it was deliberate and in turn, extremely well executed. It was a lovely nod to Brecht and his techniques, a perfectly appropriate choice for a show that challenges the ‘system’ and debates truth and truth-tellers.
Whilst usually I find STC sets to be some of the best in the business, this set largely left me a little cold. Having first seen the show on Broadway, perhaps their more cosy interpretation of the set left a lasting impression on me but even so, I found a couple small details ultimately ruined the perfect simplicity that I felt Rattray’s direction was aiming for, namely the inclusion of technology that felt obsolete - the dancing screens and giant projections really did little to service the play or the progression of the narrative. Once finally in the Vegas house setting, I felt that Marg Horwell’s design really found itself and that setting, I really loved for this piece.
The trio of actors are all excellent and take on their roles with deserved assuredness. To say that any of the three ‘lead’ the production, I feel discredits the impressive chemistry that they had as an ensemble. These relationships between the cast prove an imperative feature of the piece in order to best execute the fast paced dialogue and emotional rollercoaster of the show.
Gareth Davies is no stranger to the stage, or to the STC audience, and he makes it clear that this was a role made for him. His seasoned approach is perfect for this character and he exudes the necessary amount of ego, irony and brashness to really nail the role of D’Agata. In her STC debut, Sigrid Thornton portrays a very stylised version of Emily Penrose, editor of the magazine where the article in question will be published. Though clearly a talented performer, some of her delivery felt over acted for me and left me feeling that she may still be finding her feet to some extent in this role. That said, there were some moments that were just beautiful and I appreciated the smarts behind her performance, namely her differentiated interactions with her two male counterparts.
It is however Charles Wu who steals the stage for me. Though I have seen him perform a number of times before in both STC shows and on other Sydney stages, in this he absolutely shone. His performance was authentic and his comedic timing, particularly when playing against Davies, perfect. As the overly zealous Fingal, Wu demonstrates a highly entertaining blend of awkwardness, assertiveness, naivety and honesty. Whatever Wu is in next, on the back of this performance, I want to see it.
Running at a perfect 75 minutes with no interval, this performance is tight and refreshingly intelligent - it is so nice to see a move towards scripts that celebrate the audiences’ intellectual capacity and challenge them to critically engage across Sydney - just this week I saw Photograph 51 at the Ensemble and Lifespan do just that and in both, I can comfortably say that the audiences seemed to love it. So, to theatre companies currently programming 2023 I say, please continue this trend of juicy realism infused with wit, clever dialogue and complex lingering questions - we as as audience love it and our theatre scene is richer for it.
Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed Lifespan of a Fact and would urge most any theatre goer to grab a ticket now before they sell out.