TV review

How To Make Sense of Suicide: The Quiet Genius of ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ on HBO

The Daily Beast

December 29, 2016

Every Brilliant Thing appeared quietly on HBO over Christmas on Boxing Day, a time of year when, amidst the merriment, the lonely can feel extremely lonely, and stock is taken over lives lived and promises to self and others made over the future to come.

Duncan Macmillan’s play, performed by Jonny Donahoe with vital input from a watching audience, is only an hour long, and has already had a life on stage in the UK (first produced by Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company) and at New York City’s Barrow Street Theatre.

Both Macmillan and Donahoe were both deservedly nominated for theatre awards, and the play won rave reviews. This screen version, directed and produced by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, will ensure the piece has a wider audience.

The play is about a little boy who becomes a man, and who grows up in the shadow of suicide. Donahoe performs in the round, with audience members having their own roles to play: three performances in New York were filmed to make the TV version.

Donahoe’s character—and he inhabits it so well, it feels like a heartfelt autobiographical confessional—has a mother who is suicidal, and so he begins to compose a list (at first for her) about “every brilliant thing” that makes life worth living for.

The intention is for his mother, who first tries to kill herself when he is 7, to find these scraps of hope that include “ice cream,” “things with stripes,” “Star Trek,” “the alphabet,” and “falling in love.” They evolve with the narrator’s age, so can include “peeing in the sea and nobody knows,” and “the smell of old books.”

Some of these “brilliant things” are quotidian, some exotic, and they are summoned by up Donahoe when he calls out a number—they rise from one to over one million—and an audience member given that number reads out “the brilliant thing” on their piece of card.

The hour-long play is not just a list, or reverie about the list, but also an encapsulation of confusion, depression, grief, and then finally some kind of understanding about what his family has gone through, and the effects it had on him.

For TV, there are occasional filmic interjections of memories of the past, but mostly the camera and our attention remain on Donahoe and the play’s audience.

One particularly striking sequence sees an audience member play the young man, while Donahoe inhabits the voice of the young man’s father. All the audience member must do is say ‘why’ to everything his dad says—just as certain kids are wont to do. The father bats away most things, until his son asks about suicide and his mother.

That is telling, because suicide—at its heart—is such a personal act there are sometimes no answers. The question “why” can be the most insoluble, and painful, one of all for those loved ones left after someone commits suicide.

And its shadow is long. Every Brilliant Thing is also moving because we see how it impacts his future relationship with a partner.

It may sound perverse that such a moving and complex piece could contain humor—and a lot of very witty, sharp humor—but Macmillan’s play, which travels widely (details here), does.

Donahoe is a comedian, and he knows when to very naturally, and sometimes uproariously, meld humor into the patchwork of the play. Some of this revolves around the use of audience members: one is dragooned into playing his girlfriend, and so there is a moment of slight real-world-meets-play-world silliness when the guy sitting next to her is forced to move, while Donahoe begins his courtship of her.

The audience member made to be the veterinarian who puts the narrator’s dog down when he is young is deemed by Donahoe not to have administered the fatal injection properly on first jab, and so she must do it again.

His relationship with his girlfriend progresses to such a painful point, it is moving to see the audience member who played the partner that night hug Donahoe so emotionally at the end of the play.

The man playing his father, and the woman playing a school guidance counselor, also are both there for the young man at his darkest moments—and whatever their level of coaching or talent before the show produce very beautiful capsule performances.

There are the only the gentlest of jokes at the audience’s expense in Every Brilliant Thing. Sometimes the tone of someone’s voice makes people laugh, but mostly Macmillan and Donahoe’s intention—which is an act of immersive storytelling with an emphatic investment made in the participation of those hearing it—pays off profoundly.

As he perches in seats or sits in aisles to address the audience, the charming Donahoe both makes this story of suicide and its discontents intensely personal, and also demands that the audience truly listen to him, and wonder as he wonders about its meaning and impact.

The groups of people he is addressing—there in the theater, and via HBO—become an intimate community, listening and trying to understand what is usually the most private of tragic acts.

There is something brave in what Macmillan and Donahoe are attempting to do in the play—not just in what we are asked to hear and comprehend, but in the insistence that we do that together—and so this act of suicide, fictionally framed as it is, is responded to, and heard, as and by a group.

The anguish and confusion of the narrator is not private or turned in on itself, but laid out for all to see and hear. The most brilliant thing about Every Brilliant Thing goes unsaid in his list: how cathartic and illuminating collective experience can be, especially theater.