Celebrated director and giant of Belvoir’s history Neil Armfield joined us in advance of rehearsals beginning for Things I Know To Be True to talk about his much anticipated return to the Upstairs Theatre, and this amazing play charting the lives over one year of Bob and Fran Price, and their four children Pip, Mark, Ben and Rosie in Suburban Adelaide.
You are soon to be directing Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know To Be True at Belvoir, what made you pick this play in particular?
Andrew asked me if I’d be interested. I was working with Andrew, as I have for years, on The Secret River and during this time he sent it to me to read. I loved it very much and it played into my own family history, which I’ve mined into all my directing life. My dad worked for another Australian icon, Arnott’s for all its life, and Bob has worked for Holden all his life. I loved that; I love the relationship between Bob and Fran, and how Fran feels like one of those great Australian women that the theatre has immortalised. I think of Gwen in Away, Oriel Lamb in Cloudstreet, Olive in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. There are these figures of enormous strength and real complexity with what Andrew has written and Fran is one of them. She’s extremely tough and unlikeable at times but always working through such great love.
The dramatic delineation of each of the children is so finely drawn and there is such a beautiful structure to the play. I can’t wait to get started.
Andrew Bovell is a much loved playwright in Australia; often in the public eye. What is it about his work that you think resonates so well with Australian audiences?
I think Andrew looks deeply into his own heart. I directed a short film that he wrote, in a series called Naked: Stories of Men. I directed two films in the series of six; Andrew wrote one and Nick Enright wrote the other. Andrew’s film was very much him coming to terms with his own father’s death and there was just a sense of looking hard particularly into the lower middle class white Australian family which he does with such a loving eye but also such a critical and amused eye. He also always works with such a beautiful language, and an interesting sense of theatrical structure, which you can see if you look at films like Lantana.
And that particular film of Andrew’s that I did was called The Fisherman’s Wake and it was about what gets passed on between generations and I personally think that’s his great theme.
What do you believe are the main themes of Things I Know To Be True?
I think there is such a strong sense of movement through the work; it’s dealing with a tension between home and the world, between the love that is involved in creating security within a family, and the need for kids to grow out and away from their parents’ shadow and control. That is dramatized completely and its embedded in the work whilst set against the relentless cycle of nature; vividly represented through the garden on stage, moving from Summer to Autumn to Winter to Spring and back to Summer again. And against this apparent repetitive cycle is a movement in time which is constantly breaking out of that sense of repetition.
I guess the play is fundamentally about the tension between a sort of permanence and change, and aging. There is both a desire to hold on to safety and security, but also to break out and become yourself. And the sort of inevitable pain of kids growing away from their parents is worked out with multiple moral dimensions across the two generations of the world that is contained in the play.
Can you tell us a bit about the cast you’ve assembled?
Casting is always a wonderful process, and you create the production so particularly in the accuracy or quality of the casting. Tony Martin and Anna Lise Phillips were the first people that I cast. Anna Lise and I had worked together at Belvoir in Melissa Reeves play The Spook and there is an intelligence and a spikiness about Anna Lise that I thought would be great for that slightly damaged quality of the eldest child in Pip.
Tony I’ve worked with at Belvoir in David Hare’s My Zinc Bed. I first saw Tony on stage in Belvoir in the season I curated, the first year that Belvoir ever had a curated season of shows and the first time we ever had subscriptions, and that was in 1988. It was a season that I’d put together called Radical Classics and Tony was in the first season of the adaptation by Louis Nowra of Capricornia. I’d never seen him on stage before but he’d done some television work, and I just thought that he had that feeling of that iconic Australian man, and it’s very much a quality that I had in my mind when I cast Tony as the father in Candy, the film that I made in 2005. I just feel there’s such a big heart in Tony and a real sense of connection to the earth, a real sense of the class of Bob that sits inside Tony, so I was thrilled when Tony agreed to do it.
Helen Thomson is an actress of amazing theatrical power. I last worked with Helen in King Lear and before that in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, here at Belvoir where she played Pearl. As our composer Alan John said, there’s sort of nothing that Helen can’t do. Fran is a kind of Mother Courage; she’s an absolute survivor, and she’s unflinchingly honest and I think it’s a really great role for Helen because it’s sort of unlike anything else I’ve seen her play before.
Tom Hobbs was in my film Holding the Man. He was in a small part of Peter, the best friend of John Caleo. He was there with them at university and then comes back, which the real Peter did, as a nurse in the hospice when John was dying. Tom was in this key moment where he had to appear as this kind of angel, wearing little angel’s wings. I’d auditioned Tom for some other theatre things but I hadn’t found the right thing, but I thought Mark would be a really great role for him.
Miranda Daughtry I’ve never worked with but I’ve worked with her little brother in Adelaide on The Secret River. I had seen her work before though and she was a brilliant Nora in The Dolls House over in South Australia.
And the last actor I cast was for the role of Ben with Matt Levett. Again, I’ve not worked with but I saw him in The Devil’s Playground, the television series that was made from the idea of the original film, and in a show in the Old Fitz and I thought he was really great in both. He sent an audition over from LA and so beautifully caught the nuance of that character who seems to be, of all the kids, the most successful in the world but who’s actually probably the least.
This is your first time directing a play for the Upstairs Theatre since 2011. How does it feel to be back?
Lovely! I was part of the team that founded the Company and I was its first Artistic Director, and having worked here as a director for ten years before becoming Artistic Director for another seventeen it has sort of felt like my life’s work, really.
Also certainly the pride of coming into 18 Belvoir Street and the Upstairs Rehearsal room which we didn’t have for the first 20 years of the company’s life, is immense. So Belvoir has been in my artistic blood; it’s the first full time job I took in the theatre. I’d flirted with the idea of other companies but never committed to the idea of being an Artistic Director until I’d found a political structure within the company that would reflect the way I like to work in the rehearsal room and that’s what we created at Belvoir. It’s been a necessary thing to have big changes of direction and changes of the guard with Ralph and then Eamon as the successive artistic directors. But it’s a company that I love and with which I have a relationship unlike any other company.
And particularly after Counting and Cracking which was such a triumph this year at the beginning of this year and at the Adelaide Festival, it’s lovely to come back in and play in that room.
For more information and to book tickets visit the official page for Things I Know To Be True.