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Tell Me I’m Here

Tell Me I’m Here
Writer: Veronica Nadine Gleeson
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Belvoir Street Theatre
August 24 – September 25, 2022

Tell Me I’m Here is based upon Anne Deveson’s personal and passionate account of her son’s battle with schizophrenia, her struggle to find help for him and the chaos his condition wrought on her own and her family’s lives. Her 1991 memoir has been powerfully adapted by Veronica Nadine Gleeson and compellingly staged by the Belvoir under the direction of a committed Leticia Cáceres. Stark and unflinching in charting the course of Jonathan’s mental deterioration, despite its grimness and heartbreak, the play is lit from within by admiration for Deveson’s resilience.

Initially, an unencumbered stage set, white, spare, a long table, functional chairs close to the back wall, occupied by a very large, filled bookcase conveys the impression of a pleasantly efficient and well-educated orderliness. A cheerful family meal is broken into by the teenage Jonathan (Tom Conroy) returned early from camping with a nervous friend who describes him as “sick”. Huddling against a wall – which is to become an archive of his torment – his uplifted arms hiding his face, he giggles helplessly.

And so begins the journey for Anne (Nadine Garner) into a bizarre world where she becomes comforter and enemy, feeling responsible but often rancorous as progressively her once well-ordered space is occupied by Jonathan’s disturbed visions.

Garner brings to the role of the beleaguered Anne a heart-wrenching authenticity, her body language always movingly expressive of her complex responses. Her too neatly attired figure, her jumper a brave splash of red, appears appropriately diminutive in the open stage space as she struggles to find treatment for her son in a largely uncomprehending world. Her partners, Jonathan’s father, the self-centred Ellis and later the Architect (both played with an affable remoteness by Sean O’Shea), are unable to deal with the havoc that Tom brings or the demand his condition makes on Anne’s time and emotional energy as she struggles to find treatment for her son and maintain her challenging work as a journalist.

Garner and Conroy have chemistry if of a different kind. Conroy too is authentic as he swings between a remembered affection and violence, between duplicitous conformity and outrageous rebelliousness. “Don’t harm Anne” he writes on the wall, and he and Garner establish between them the mutual pain of need and rejection, of love and loss. As much as Garner’s stance conveys her emotional muscle – at times much tested as she hunches down into an unaccommodating chair – Tom’s seemingly loosening body conveys his recession from the agreed world. In a powerfully moving moment, he begins to outline his feet on the ground in chalk but manages a half-imprint of one foot before he loses track of himself.

Anne is not entirely alone. There are warm moments shared between her and the mother (Deborah Galanos) of another schizophrenic child, we the note the growing understanding of her daughter, Georgia, whose changing emotions are sensitively conveyed by Jana Zvedeniuk, and O’Shea brings a genuine good-heartednes to his role as a friend from the Matthew Talbot Hostel for the Homeless.

Gleeson allows her audience to depart on a hopeful note with the birth of new life, a new beginning. And while we know that treatment for, and attitudes towards, schizophrenia have changed since the ’80s, nevertheless under the direction of Cáceres the merciless torment of mental illness and its devastating repercussions for women and family life is given a forceful iteration.

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theatre@ssh.com.au

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