Combating darkness by finding joy in the little things.
In world that’s constantly beset by bad news, it never hurts to have an occasional reminder of all there is to be thankful for in life. And with Oliver Chong’s Mandarin adaptation of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, gratitude and happiness become more important than ever, as they become a means of survival when tragedy strikes.
Translated, directed and performed by Oliver, Every Brilliant Thing introduces audiences to a boy and his relentless attempts at preventing his mother from committing suicide. In uncovering and presenting ‘every brilliant thing’ in the world, audience members are invited to rediscover and share in these little joys all around us, and the many people in his life, to counter the darkness constantly creeping in at the corners.
Much like its original English version, Every Brilliant Thing hinges entirely on its performer’s capability to draw audience members in, and keep them engaged and involved in the story. This is primarily aided by its theatre-in-the-round format, as audiences surround Oliver onstage, allowing us to observe and notice just about every detail in the performance. And to further emphasise the focus on the performer, the set itself is pared down and minimalist, comprising just a chair, a stool, and several cardboard boxes, while Oliver is dressed in casual attire, in a white tee, jeans and trainers.
Over the course of Every Brilliant Thing, Oliver takes us through his life’s journey by recalling the ‘brilliant things’ in life. From paddle pops to catching, Oliver begins by listing down some unassumingly brilliant things from childhood. Our own childhood memories are easily evoked as asks us where we used to play catching (and coming to the consensus that HDB void decks were indeed, the best locations). It takes a big personality and seasoned actor to bring out the sheer joy and enthusiasm with this engagement, and Oliver pulls it off, leaving us wanting to continue the conversation, and hear him out, drawing us in and holding all our attention within this compact, intimate space.
Things begin to get dark however, when as a 7 year old, Oliver’s character has his first encounter with death – his pet dog Snoopy, put down at the vet. But while other plays might be content to just tell the story, Oliver’s direction makes this experience a part of our memories too, as an audience member is invited to deliver the deadly injection to ‘Snoopy’. No longer is this a stranger’s experience, but a tiny tragedy we all witness and feel, as Snoopy slowly succumbs to the injection.
This then sets the precedent for the remainder of the play – Oliver is not merely recounting, but involving audience members by inviting them to participate in the work as well, helping enact various anecdotes in the story. This is particularly impressive when you realise that every audience member’s seat is associated with a certain story or item, and Oliver is completely confident when he calls out the corresponding number and points out the audience member that will be participating.
Unlike the original script, Oliver’s version takes some liberties with creative control, and introduces us to a medley of characters he encounters while growing up. The central storyline of a suicidal mother still exists, scarring Oliver’s character when he learns of it, frozen in fear and doubt as he straps himself into the car as his dad drives him to the hospital, a constant stream of ‘whys’ clouding him as he waits. But in this version, Oliver also allows us to become privy to what happens to his character as he grows up, recalling confidants such as his beloved ‘Fang Lao Shi’ or his experience joining a support group. Perhaps most significant of all is the introduction of a romantic interest and eventual wife – Xinru, with an endearing meet-cute in a library, and who is integral to his recovery as they make new, happy memories with each other.
Across the play, music in particular, is celebrated as a source of joy, with a carefully selected track to underscore the atmosphere of certain scenes, whether it’s Bob Dylan, Teresa Tang, Tsai Chin, or even ‘We Are the World’. These songs not only help characterise our protagonist, firmly speaking of his generation and evoking the simplicity of a different age (Oliver champions the power of CDs in one scene, and how the booklets within tell you everything about the album), but also remind us of the need for love and healing as things get tough. Even if his mother’s suicide attempt and her loss of will to live is constantly at the back of his mind, it is these ‘brilliant things’ that ultimately prevent the fear from completely consuming him.
There are times these ‘things’ become truly heart-rending moments, from a scene that makes use of the nostalgic ‘Kallang Wave’, where anyone who remembers the old National Stadium would recognise and have memories of, as the lights begin to flicker like stars and he counts to 10,000. Or the simplicity of a scene where the family gathers in the living room after dinner, and Oliver (as his character’s father) simply plays the guitar, singing songs like ‘Wo Shi Yi Ge Xiao Xiao Niao’ or ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’. The lights dim, with only a spotlight on him, as he serenades us, reminding us of how ‘brilliance’ need not be big or boisterous, as the beauty and genuine emotion fills the space. Even his wedding with Xinru, despite performing it alone, feels like an elaborate affair, his emotions pouting out from him as his father toasts and congratulates him, and they head to Australia for a joyous honeymoon.
Through his interpretation of Every Brilliant Thing, Oliver has quietly but effectively allowed this character to work his way into our hearts. There is so much pain and fear displayed throughout the performance, that you cannot help but sympathise with him. Yet laced with the endless optimism and perseverance, it’s a performance that also inspires us, and makes us want to face life bravely and positively, to open up and be real with Oliver and each other in this shared space, becoming an intimate community of collaborators over these shared experiences and vulnerability in storytelling. Even when things get hard, it is tiny, simple things from Milo Dinosaurs to the Bukit Timah monkeys, to binging Game of Thrones to even being called a ‘shuai ge’ by the cai png stall aunty, that keep him going, and for us to remember the little things to make our day a little less bad.
As we see him push over a box, overflowing with letters and memories, it’s a small but powerful act that shows us of how there is joy in almost everything we do, how happiness is often hiding in plain sight, and how there is so much to live for in this world, even when tragedy strikes. This world has thrown us one hard knock after another, but perhaps all we need to do is to take a step back, and realise how something even as simple as the fact that we can sit here and watch a live show after surviving a pandemic, can shine bright and brilliant too.
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography
Every Brilliant Thing played from 11th to 13th February 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts 2022. More information available here
Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts 2022 ran from 11th February to 6th March 2022 at the Esplanade. Full programme lineup available here