Written by Jeremy Kareken and David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. Sydney Theatre Company. 20 September – 22 October, 2022.
A thought-provoking, hilarious script. A beloved Australian actress. Sydney Theatre Company’s Covid-delayed production of Broadway hit, The Lifespan of a Fact, is finally here with the weight of expectation behind it. And it’s good. Really good. But for me, something is missing…
We all have big opinions about the state of journalism, the fog of “alternative facts”, the erosion of public trust etc, and The Lifespan of a Fact tries to get to the core of whether “the truth” and “the facts” are indeed one and the same. The script fizzes with conceptual wordplay shooting out between three instantly recognisable characters. The powerful editor, the stubborn writer, the over-enthusiastic youth.
In telling the story of a suicide, what is more imporant – capturing the essence of the person, or holding fast to the details? Should you ever “let the facts get in the way of a good story”? What is “truth” after all? For writer/essayist John D’Agata the truth is the essence, it is the journey taken to bring the reader to a deeper understanding. For intern/fact-checker Jim Fingal the truth is the cumulative total of verifiable facts. For editor Emily Penrose the truth is the best, most impactful story that passes due diligence – balancing the prose with the poetry for maximum cut-through. Throw in a tight deadline to turn up the screws and you’ve got the set-up for a cerebral farce on journalistic themes. This is completely up my alley.
But something is missing…
Some excellent casting amplifies the drama. Charles Wu’s Jim is fresh-faced and earnest, a believer in what great writing can do. He is pitted against Gareth Davies’ grizzled D’Agata, older, bitter and more worldly. It’s never spoken aloud, but the age gap, the experience gap fuels the duals clashing worldviews. Between them Sigrid Thornton looks utterly tiny on the Rosyln Packer stage, but her presence is all enveloping. As Emily, the matriarch of her magazine who is forced into the role of arbiter in this war, she ducks and weaves and cajoles her team, desperate to reach a deadline that could shower them in accolades – but only if it’s correct.
For a play hitting at some of the big topics of modern times, The Lifespan of a Fact is wonderfully engaging but feels… slight. It’s like watching an episode of The West Wing. Charming and sharp, observant but ultimately a little glib. It’s just not as insightful as it thinks it is. Once you establish character, situation, plot and the stakes there’s only so much room to explore the issues in an entertaining way. And *spoiler alert here for the rest of the sentence* the ending feels like a dramatic cheat.
Elements of the production itself also gnawed at the back of my brain while watching. The set felt haphazard in the space, imprecise. Some of the timing of jokes felt rushed. And what was the point of the musician on stage, adding the occasional solitary, jazzy drone?! (BTW the “point” is explained in the show’s programme – it’s a definite stylistic choice that just didn’t work for me). These are personal niggles, not flaws.
*Spoiler alert again!* So what was missing for me? The play has no point, no opinion. It throws its hands up in the air and says “you decide” to the audience. It’s as if the writers were too scared to reveal their own feelings, or maybe it got lost in the committee (there are three writers credited – Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell). And it’s a shame. The play could have ended with a stirring “fuck yeah” speech by Emily about the importance of truth, the power of facts, of facing the reality of the world and not hiding behind convenient narratives. It could have said something.
Instead, The Lifespan of a Fact entertains us. This isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s a good thing. We need entertainment that tickles our brains as well as our funny-bones. Good theatre entertains, but really great theatre enlightens… and this is really good theatre.
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