Review By Rosie Niven
Many of you may remember Anne Deveson’s memoir, Tell Me I’m Here - a devastatingly raw and honest exploration of her relationship with her son Jonathan, and his journey from a sweet and unassuming young boy to an unrecognisable man who begins to display violet and erratic behaviours. At the time of its release, readers were rocked by the story of Anne’s life as she tried to balance caring for her schizophrenic son with her career, her love life, her relationships with her other children, and her own health, shining a light on the challenges of trying to find support and acknowledgement within the complexities of the mental health system. Now thirty years later, Anne’s story returns to Australia - this time in a stage adaptation by Veronica Nadine Gleeson for Belvoir St Theatre, bringing to life her narrative in a completely new way.
Honouring the story laid out in Anne’s memoir, Gleeson’s Tell Me I’m Here invites us directly into Anne’s world from the moment that Jonathan is born. Filled with delight and fear about the newfound role of parenthood, her world is halted when she is told that her son has suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. When Jonathan turns seventeen, her world is halted again as he begins to display uncharacteristic behaviours, laughing at his father’s funeral and concocting narratives far removed from reality. When he slips further into psychosis, her world turns completely upside down. So begins the journey of Anne’s desperate search for an answer, pleading for help from police, Doctors, anyone who will listen. Unfortunately for her and Jonathan, nobody does.
Director Leticia Caceres leads this show with a masterful hand. The performers flourish under her Direction, and she sets an engaging pace for Anne’s story to unfold. While elements of this first Act are challenging to grasp at times, it emulates the chaos of Anne’s life as she cycles through medical professionals to find help for her son. The first Act leaves you gasping for breath alongside Anne, feeling as if a hurricane is quickly and viciously taking over the theatre. As we delve into the second Act, we find ourselves in the eye of the storm, with a newfound stillness amongst the chaos and an overwhelming sense of dread that things are about to get much, much worse. Stephen Curtis’ set contributes to the chaos in an innovative way, merging the real world with Jonathan’s hallucinations until the space is alive with colour and pain, taking us right into the inner workings of his brain.
The role of Anne is complex and challenging, and one that performer Nadine Garner takes in her stride. She expertly captures the determination of a mother who will stop at nothing to help her child, and serves as a strong and engaging narrator as we watch her family, and her life, fall apart. Her performance is complemented by Tom Conroy’s multidimensional portrayal of Jonathan. It is clear that Conroy steps into this role with empathy and compassion for Jonathan’s experience, capturing the light and humanity within him as he struggles with his psychosis. His is a dynamic and striking performance from start to finish - when Conroy is on stage, it is impossible to look away. Deborah Galanos, Raj Labade, Sean O’Sjea and Zvedeniuk skillfully adopt a range of roles as the ensemble, creating a web of names and faces that both impact and are impacted by Jonathan’s story. Labade, O’Shea and Zvedeniuk’s portrayals of Jonathan’s siblings and Anne’s partners truly drive home the devastating impact that mental illness has on the entire family.
I’ll be honest with you - Tell Me I’m Here is a miserable show. One that leaves the audience breathless and heavy, devoid of vibrant chatter as you exit into the foyer. But in that misery and hopelessness is an intense honesty about the experience of mental illness and the unwavering power of a mother’s love. These are stories that are still unfolding for people mistreated and misunderstood by the mental health system. Somewhere, probably very close to you, there are individuals trying to get help that are constantly being turned away. Somewhere, there are hundreds of families like Anne’s trying to hold themselves together, led by parents desperately looking for a manual and thinking, ‘This wasn’t part of the plan’. What Tell Me I’m Here really drives home is that no matter who you are, this can still happen to you. There is no amount of money, fame or education that can save you when this happens to you. Yet through it all, a mother’s love will still persevere.
This is an important show to see, despite how painful it is to see it. In refusing to shy away from or soften these narratives, Caceres and her team have honoured Anne Deveson, and Jonathan, in the best way possible. Go see this show. Pack some tissues.