The Almighty Sometimes

MTC Max Mckenna and Nadine Garner in The Almighty Sometimes photo by Pia JohnsonKendall Feaver was in 20s when her extraordinary debut play The Almighty Sometimes was first seen in the UK in 2018. It had already won the Australian writer – who moved to the UK to study playwriting – a Judges Award at the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting (Europe’s largest writing competition) and has continued to be nominated for significant awards, including winning the Prize for Drama at the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

It’s been performed in Australia, the UK and other countries. The Melbourne Theatre Company’s production is the first professional local production and is as powerful and moving as the writing.

Anna (Max McKenna) is 18. She’s met a nice boy, Oliver (Karl Richmond), and he is only a bit awkward when her mum, Renee (Nadine Garner), walks in on them making out in the kitchen. Renee recognising him as a past student is more awkward, as is her trying to enlist his help as a friend because Anna is ill.

Anna has an unnamed and stable complex mental illness and has been medicated and under psychiatric care from the same doctor, Vivienne (Louisa Mignone), since she was 11. Being 18 means that it’s time to move away from the paediatric specialist and be all those things that adults are supposed to be.

When Anna finds her childhood notebooks, she reads stories she had forgotten she’d written and questions if her medications were stifling her real self and her creativity and if she had simply been hurt and confused because her father had died.

MTC Max Mckenna and Karl Richmond in The Almighty Sometimes photo by Pia JohnsonThe Almighty Sometimes doesn’t explore the trope of breaking free and finding your true self. It’s about doubt and impossible-to-answer “what ifs?”. It’s about fear, anger and how unflinching parental love has to flinch and question and fight when the stakes are too high to even think about.

Feaver spent 5 years researching mental illness and interviewing people with it, their families and professional and medical support teams. We know so much about these too-often hidden illnesses and still know so little.

Mental illness is often exploited in story telling as a romantic or tragic character flaw or an external threat waiting for a cure, breakthrough or an explanation. To see a complex condition and the trial and error of treatment presented honestly and as accurately as possible can be confronting but almost a relief to see illness presented with its confusion, consequences and unexpected collisions with brick walls.

But the core of this work is that it’s not about mental illness; Feaver finds the emotional truth of the people and shares their story. Answers come and go, but each character shows us how and why they make their choices.

Garner’s Renee is running on the memory of energy. Her child is ill. Her child is difficult. Her child is legally an adult, and her parental control is limited. She’s alone and lonely and never reveals her own secrets. The only thing keeping her functioning is the armour she’s built around herself to create the illusion of strength. She loves Anna more than she loves herself, but love cannot undo what has already been done.

McKenna’s deeply layered performance as Anna is as extraordinary as the writing. Anna is smart and funny and, while she can be exasperating, it’s easy to want her to be right and to get better. But she’s ill, she doesn’t know what thoughts and behaviours are from her illness, and the consequences of her decisions are breaking the people who support her.

MTC Max McKenna and Karl Louisa Mignone in The Almighty Sometimes photo by Pia JohnsonJacob Battista’s set, lit by Amelia Lever-Davidson, initially feels like an IKEA-perfect staged apartment – until it moves. Its wooden floor and clean benches become hospital, doctors’ offices and houses that are moved in and around like a maze. Those in the maze can’t see or feel it moving for all the clear space, but everyone watching is waiting for a crash.

Feaver calls director Hannah Goodwin (the current resident director at Belvoir in Sydney) “my dear friend and brilliant collaborator”. Goodwin reveals the irrational empty space between the dialogue, and the changing balances of power in the relationships. She guides the production to ensure that it never falls into the ease of sympathy. There’s empathy and understanding but it’s easy to ask if we would or could make different choices. There are no easy answers or explanations.

The 2024 MTC program continues to tell stories that matter and explore issues that reach into our culture and our understanding of how we fit into our families, communities and societies. The Almighty Sometimes confronts assumptions about unseen and misunderstood illnesses but doesn’t offer answers as we question if we could find a safe way out of the every-moving maze.

The Almighty Sometimes
Southbank Theatre – The Sumner, Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Performance: Friday 19 April 2024
Season continues to 18 May 2024
Information and Bookings:

Images: Max McKenna and Nadine Garner in The Almighty Sometimes – photo by Pia Johnson | Max McKenna and Karl Richmond in The Almighty Sometimes – photo by Pia Johnson | Max McKenna and Karl Louisa Mignone in The Almighty Sometimes – photo by Pia Johnson

Review: Anne-Marie Peard