Is it OK to bend the truth for the sake of a good story? Comedians would say yes. Journalists would... well, we’d like to think they’d say no. Nadine Garner is a bit more pragmatic: “I think it's about understanding what medium you're reading from,” she says. The issue of fake news is one that Garner has been acutely exploring recently as she stars in Melbourne Theatre Company’s production – and the Australian premiere of – The Lifespan of a Fact.
For a story based around the accuracy of facts and fake news, The Lifespan of a Fact is, in fact, based on a true story (we promise). The hit Broadway comedy (originally starring Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale and Cherry Jones) is based on Jim Fingal and John d’Agata’s book, The Lifespan of a Fact. That book in turn is based on d’Agata’s nonfiction essay, ‘What Happens Here’ – specifically the seven-year-long tug-of-war instigated by Fingal’s fastidious fact-checking of the literary work.
Garner says it’s that push and pull between the real-life Fingal and d’Agata (played in MTC’s production by Karl Richmond and Steve Mouzakis) that gives The Lifespan of a Fact its humour. “You have a very revered essayist, in the form of the John d’Agata character,” she says. “And that’s struck against this young whipper snipper in the Jim Fingal character. You have two really strikingly contradictory characters who are immediately funny.”
“The comedy is in the fact that they're three very different characters with three different agendas.”
While the story is based in reality – and Fingal and d’Agata are real people – Garner’s character of Emily Penrose is completely fictional, an amalgamation of the editors Fingal and d’Agata would have dealt with during the seven years between the submission of d’Agata’s essay and its actual publication. “The character of Emily is a bit of a device character in that she's placed in there [as] the publisher and she's trying to mediate between the two,” says Garner. “She wants this piece fact-checked, but she doesn't want it fact-checked to the point of it causing her any problems.”
And that’s the crux of the conflict in The Lifespan of a Fact – how far can you bend the truth to improve a story, before it becomes fake news? Likewise, how much can you fact check something before it loses all narrative and people switch off? “The paradox of it all is that the kid takes a hold of the piece and fact checks it into oblivion to the point where it unravels as a piece of writing,” says Garner. “And [d’Agata’s] point is that you have to fabricate something into a story in order to move people or in order to make people listen. “You've got these two opposing forces, and the Emily character is trying to mediate between them.”
“There isn't really a right answer. There's just two different perspectives. And I think society right now is grappling with those things.”
That’s not to say it’s OK to wilfully publish actual fake news, but The Lifespan of a Fact certainly offers a more nuanced angle on the increasingly pervasive issue. If you come into the show expecting a clear cut answer or a definitive winner from d’Agata and Fingal’s literary tussle, you’re going to leave disappointed. “You're going to go home and think about ethically where we collectively stand as human beings on how we perceive truth, and what our responsibilities are to it,” Garner says. “Hopefully, people come away entertained, having had a bit of a laugh, but also going ‘Jesus, that's actually a really profound question that we're left with.’”
The Lifespan of a Fact, starring Nadine Garner, Steve Mouzakis and Karl Richmond, is showing at Arts Centre Melbourne's Fairfax Studio until July 3.