This review discusses self harm.
In a luminescent triangle at the back of Solidarity Hall there hangs a sunhat, a bouquet of lilies, a plate, a blouse, two floral gloves, a small summer dress and a picture. It’s a memorial to Naomi, the woman at the centre of Patrick Livesey’s one-person show about their mother’s suicide. Together, these found objects offer an impression: a glimpse into a person via the things they left behind.
Over the course of 60 minutes the actor inhabits eight people mourning the death of Naomi. From 30 hours of interviews with friends and family, Livesey constructed a verbatim portrait of Naomi’s final days in an attempt to better understand how she came to take her own life. Like the assemblage of found objects hanging at the back of the stage, these individual stories combine to offer an impression of Naomi, and a tribute. With a bravura performance by Livesey at its centre, Naomi provides an unflinching look at the realities of grief and mental ill health that marks it as a standout at this year’s Melbourne Fringe.
The stage is dark when Livesey first walks out in a simple white T shirt and jeans. When they turn to face us, their gait and expression is that of a much older woman: Jean, Naomi’s younger sister. Subtle vocal affectations complete the transformation and, as Jean describes her sister’s green eyes and magnetic charisma, all traces of Livesey are lost. Livesey’s previous performances in Angus Cameron’s DIRT and cavemxn quickly singled them out as an actor to watch. Additionally, their writing credits – The Boy George, Gone Girls – cemented their talents as a playwright. Here, both skill sets come together to incredible effect.
With minimal props – an iced coffee, a cigarette, a swaddle – Livesey inhabits eight of Naomi’s closest friends and family. From her husband Vince to her stepdaughter, Kiara, Livesey switches between diverse characters with an impressive speed and a masterful control of physicality and intonation. In verbatim theatre the naturalism of interviews and testimony can be lost in the process of staging. Thankfully, Livesey handles dialogue with restraint and careful attention. Humorous anecdotes and stream-of-consciousness asides are peppered with titbits of key information that retain the organic quality of informal interviews, while never compromising pace. The show moves chronologically through Naomi’s life, touching on key events but lingering on seemingly extraneous details. We gain a great sense of intimacy with Naomi as a result, and with the people impacted by her death.
Harrie Hogan’s lighting design is restrained and minimalistic. Exposed light fixtures pepper the stage, brightening and dimming according to changes in character. Complete blackouts are almost entirely absent and transitions are at times anticlimactic as a result. Yet, because a certain amount of visibility is maintained throughout, we are able to see Livesey strip away the affectations of each character before transforming into the next. The effect is decidedly metatheatrical. At times, Livesey looks at the audience with a gentle smile, or adjusts themselves subtly in preparation for the next transformation. Considering their noticeable absence from the list of interviewees, this occasional glimpse is surprisingly affecting.
Director Bronwen Coleman (a frequent collaborator with Livesey) never loses sight of what makes the script impactful, mirroring the restraint of Hogan’s lighting design with simple blocking that affirms the intimacy we gain with these characters.
Oddly enough Naomi is not a pessimistic show. As we are told early on: “To know [Naomi] is to love her.” The object and anecdotes do not attempt to resolve grief, but they do offer us access to this kind of knowing. When the show ends, it is this loving provocation and connection that we are left with; a vital reminder of Livesey’s post-bow declaration that “we are not alone”, a statement that they deliver framed by a shroud of Naomi’s things hanging behind them.