Produced by Iron Lung Theatre, Andrew Bovell’s award winning epic play, When the Rain Stops Falling, is set to open at theatre works next month.
A juggernaut of a play – perhaps reminiscent in complexity to Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues- it is a compelling tour de force that director Briony Dunn is excited to be involved with. “What initially struck me by this work upon reading it for the first time, was how it doesn’t shy away from being theatrical or from how it uses bodies in time and space to bring us into a complex world,” she says.
In fact, Dunn first became familiar with Bovell’s work through the film Lantana in 2001, and fell in love with that film because of the tangle of events and characters that it explores. “Since then I’d read the play Speaking in Tongues (which later became the film Lantana) and I’d read Things I Know To Be True and so I was really familiar with this concept of a group of people or an ‘ensemble’ that Bovell writes about”, she says. “He finds the universality of those relationships by drawing out familiar patterns, then wraps these patterns of behaviour around each other and weaves meaning through each pattern. As the patterns keep weaving, they become deeper until we realise his work traverses both our deepest fears and our greatest hopes. So something may seem quite simple, or light at one moment. And then in the next moment it has turned around so we see it from another point of view – we see the tension and difficulty underneath the surface or at the other end of the timeline of the journey. And that’s what really struck me about this play. Each time I read it I find more surprises about how this weaving of time and space, themes and character journeys occur.”
Dunn feels that in his work, Bovell relies on our very humane ability to feel connected through the feeling of resonance. “When something resonates with us, it’s because of the connection brought about by patterning and repetition – not necessarily because of logic,” she says. “In my mind this is one of the main things that makes his work so inherently theatrical.”
The play asks “Are we doing the best we can do?” It’s about hope. It’s about optimism. It’s about anticipation – what do we anticipate for our future of ourselves, our loved ones, our world? And it’s about the actions we take – what do we actually do? When we try and do the right thing, are we actually doing the right thing? How do we know? There’s something strong in this play about an ancestral through line and our impact on it – what future impact is brought about by our actions today? That is a really strong theme, Dunn emphasises. And that’s the same for all of us, for every human. Bovell takes it the extra step, where he connects it to the planet we live on through the weather systems because the weather comes from our planet’s existence. He unites the experience of humanity with the journey of our planet.
Dunn defines Bovell’s rhythm as very specific. “We’re really noticing the rhythm the more that we look at it,” she says. “Short words, long words, onomatopoeia words and then when he does he stop using those words? They are themed and grouped together, which is how he shifts the feeling or tone of a piece. It’s a delight to discover the opportunities he offers us as a writer with his words. These are offerings that he’s laid out on the platter for us. The imagery is really strong. Some of the lines of dialogue are repeated, from one character to the next, sometimes in as much as 70 or 80 year time span. So he’s really asking us to consider what are our impacts on each other, and where are we meant to find similarities?”
Dunn analyses this further and says: “Bovell asks us to zoom in with a magnifying glass to the specifics of a stamp album we had as a child, and then zooms all the way out off the planet to the celestial realm with the planets, mythological figures, and the playground of the gods. That’s just so satisfying as a director when you are explorin that trajectory of scale within the one scene. And he does it again and again.”
“Through Bovell’s words and rich imagery he continuously weaves a spell, between all the people in the theatre, which mirrors the weaving of the characters storylines and their relationship and movement through time and space. It’s deeply satisfying to listen to.”
Challenging in the rehearsal room, because this is a play where fish fall from the sky and it never tops raining, Dunn explains the joys as well as the challenges: “Well, in many ways when you’re in the rehearsal room as a director part of you is the eyes and ears of the audience. And so you’re discovering these treats and these markers in the writing throughout the rehearsal period. And as you discover them there’s a little bit of a delight as you know what the audience will be experiencing when they come and see it.”
“I’m not too concerned with identifying or ‘locking in’ what theatrical style a play is, as that can be really narrowing in how we take in work. But essentially this play is identified as magic realism. That can be a useful term to help others understand some of the challenges and rewards working on a piece like this brings. It’s all encapsulating, drawing across the elements of theatre to build it’s complex world. That’s been a delight as well in the rehearsal room and working with the creatives – asking ourselves “how do we make such and such happen?” “How might that work?” We need to create a truthful experience in a made-up world. That’s a gift to work on.”
“Other challenges, COVID aside and having to navigate that as a company – include not having Andrew Bovell in the room to ask him all of our burning questions! We’ve just had to figure it out, as you do, and that takes time with a play as panoramic as this.”
Clearly, Dunn loves being in the rehearsal room. She enjoys ‘nutting’ it out with actors and going on that journey with them -sometimes it’s deeply challenging and sometimes it flows easily or is deeply hilarious. “But I love the lack of judgment that we all experience together in the rehearsal room when figuring it out,” she says. “It’s hard to choose my favourite part as I also love a good creative discussion with the design and production team outside the rehearsal room. I super love tech week – getting into the theatre when you see it all coming together. When we’ve got the paper plot. And we’re really beginning to see how things fit with each other and rub against each other as we bring it to life.”
Unsurprisingly, Dunn likes to tell stories that make people go home and want to hug their loved ones – a story that helps audiences reflect on their lives, and to either embrace it, nourish it, or shake up. She directs plays where the intimacy or the spectacle of the theatre means the story probably can’t be told in any other place. “Whether it’s a highly intimate and nuanced two-hander or a larger piece of magic realism that takes you to an expanded reality – it needs to be something that does what only theatre can do,” she says.
Dunn and co-artistic director, Esther van Doornum, started Iron Lung Theatre after a long-awaited catch- up at a coffee shop. “But, states Dunn, :we were always meant to start this company together… Years ago we had gone to drama school together in Sydney where Esther was a second year actor and I was studying directing, and we kept meaning to have a proper sit down and a coffee chat. We finally got to have that coffee years later in 2018 when Esther leaned across the cafe table and said, “I think we should start a company together.” And I leaned back and said “There’s this play I have to direct and you’d be perfect for it.” Two weeks later we had the rights to ‘Night, Mother by Marsha Norman and had it in rehearsal not long after that. It was during those rehearsals we chose When the Rain Stops Falling for our next play. Esther sent it to me to read and when I got to the fourth page I emailed her ‘Yes.’”
Dunn explains that Iron lung was born out of a need to do work with creatives that they are drawn towards. “That’s really important to us and the key to success in the independent sector,” she says. “We stage plays that shed light on issues important to us and the world we live in, telling the story of the power our individual actions have on others and our world. That is the seed from which the original production of When the Rain Stops Falling was formed. From a 2021 perspective we are living in a world in even greater crisis than ever. We need to know if we can fix our past in our future. And if we can’t, what are we capable of?”
Taking place between two worlds, When the Rain Stops Falling reaches from the claustrophobia of a small flat in rainy London in 1959 to the windswept coast of South Australia and beyond, following the journey of Gabriel Law as he retraces his father’s footsteps, desperately attempting to solve the mystery of his disappearance.
Dunn encourages audiences to attend saying, “…you won’t want to miss the joy, or that big emotional feeling of wonder and connection, that happens when we find ourselves within the deepening patterns within this play. That’s what happens when we experience a Bovell play. That’s what he does in his work. That’s part of the joy of that his work brings us. This play is a beautiful and meticulous piece of theatre that will stretch your mind as an audience member, and will expand your heart as a person.”
Directed by Briony Dunn
Performed by Heather Bolton, Lucie Chaix, Esther van Doornum, Francis Greenslade, Darcy Kent, Margaret Mills and Alex Pinder
July 12 – 31
Rehearsal images: David Paterson
Colour image: Josh Wayn