Initially, you may be sceptical that a play about suicide and depression can be at once hilarious and genuinely uplifting, but such it is with Duncan Macmillian’s Every Brilliant Thing. Katrina Conaglen spoke to stand-up comedian Jonny Donahoe, who performs in the play, about bringing humour to the darkest of topics, how to successfully involve an audience, and the media’s mishandling of suicide
Every Brilliant Thing tells the tale of a small boy who, upon learning his mother has attempted suicide, determines to write her a list of all the things worth living for. It evolves through the years, from the simple pleasures of “the colour yellow, things with stripes, kind people who are nice and don’t smell weird”, to the more adult existentialism of “the feeling of calm which follows the realisation that, although you may be in a regrettable situation, there’s nothing you can do about it”.
As the boy grows into a man, so too his comprehension of his mother’s suffering evolves. Unusually for a play about depression, it is neither unremittingly bleak nor unfeasibly optimistic, but powerfully human and humane, and ultimately life-affirming.
Every Brilliant Thing has returned to the Fringe this year at the Roundabout at Summerhall, following a successful run last year and four months off-Broadway in New York.
The play began life as a short story penned by Duncan Macmillian ten years ago, called Sleeve Notes. It was read aloud at the Latitude Festival by various comedic luminaries such as Ed Byrne and Frank Skinner (YouTube it: the nascent piece is full of wit and poignancy) before being turning into an art installation – a small room in which people were invited to write their contribution to “The List” – their idea of a brilliant thing.
Macmillian invited Donahoe to co-script a play based on the story as “a distraction from the fact I’m a comedian and mostly do stand-up and Duncan is normally a traditional playwright who writes plays of his own that go on at the National Theatre.”
They researched the topic of depression and suicide thoroughly, and were determined to approach the topic with both honesty and humour.
“The only way to really talk about depression is to do it whilst smiling,” Donahoe says. “And the only way to deal with it is to talk to people and to share it and to realise how common it is and how normal it is takes out some of the stigma.”
Donahoe is an affable presence, the kind of man so gregarious and at ease with himself that you immediately feel safe in his company, keen to share your secrets. Such easy charm is handy given the play enlists audience members to take on the role of key people in the boy’s life – his guidance counsellor, his partner, his father.
This lends the play a conspiratorial feel.
“The style of the play is the key to it,” Donahoe observes. “It’s in the round and you can see everyone around you, so we create a sense of community. What we learned with the research that we’d done is there are lots of ways of helping depression – treatments, medicines, all sorts of things – but the one thing you can do as a non-professional is to encourage communication, sharing, and talking.”
As well as a sense of communality, the audience participation adds the intrigue of seeing how people will respond to the tasks set them: one man is enlisted to give a Father of the Bride speech, another lady to summarise the Goethe novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. The results are alternately funny and poignant, and never at the audience member’s expense.
“The trick with improvisation is to empower the other person, whether the other person is also an improviser or just a random person who has no training or no knowledge of what’s going on,” Donahoe explains. “And the thing about empowering somebody is finding a trope and a form that they feel so comfortable in they don’t realise what they’re actually doing, nothing magic or special, so they don’t engage that part of the brain that makes them fear it and shut down.
“All of the interactive beats are about finding trips and situations that people find so familiar that they fall into them without any sense of discomfort and are able to create something magical without ever stalling or getting lost.”
The ‘something magical’ that Every Brilliant Thing achieves is a sort-of life-affirming catharsis for the audience, because, as Donahoe’s notes, “it starts with an issue that you can’t help but face in your life. You’re either going to be affected by mental health or it’s going to be something that features in the life of somebody you’re incredibly close to, a partner or a parent or a child.”
Addressing these topics with warmth, humour, and a lack of judgement is especially critical in an environment where they are so often mishandled. Within the play, the press is rebuked for their often distasteful exploitation of suicide for splashy headlines, and Donahoe echoes those sentiments.
“Media coverage of depression and suicide has been terrible, certainly in this country, for a really long time,” he says. “The sense is I think the media hasn’t caught up with the actual general consensus which is that we don’t find mental health funny. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that the shock headline and the way that Robin William’s tragic death last year was reported was woefully out of touch with how people felt about him. There are a set of guidelines by The Samaritans which I read out in the show, and they failed on every single one: ‘don’t publish a suicide note, don’t publish on the front page, don’t speculate on the reason’.
“Nobody’s ever killed themselves for one reason, it’s far too complicated. It is unfathomable. If we oversimplify it and become reductive with it we don’t do ourselves as a community a justice. It’s a tragedy we need to stop from happening any more as much as we possibly can.”
Every Brilliant Thing, Roundabout @ Summerhall, 2.05pm, until 30 Aug / listings. On tour across the UK from September
Jonny is also appearing in the Jonny and the Baptists: The End Is Nigh, Summerhall, 7.50pm, until 30 Aug / listings