Roslyn Packer Theatre, September 24


If I merely told you facts – that the play has three actors and lasts for 75 minutes, for instance – you wouldn’t be much wiser. The Lifespan of a Fact is about exactly that: how facts, by themselves, are insufficient to cut to the heart of a story. In this case that heart is the 2002 suicide of a teenaged boy in Las Vegas by jumping off the extremely tall Stratosphere Hotel. Acclaimed writer John D’Agata couldn’t get inside the dead boy’s head, but he could create a magazine essay that was less concerned with strict adherence to truth than with painting an impression of the world in which it happened.

Sigrid Thornton and Charles Wu. Photos: Prudence Upton.

The death of Levi Presley was real, as was d’Agata’s essay, What Happens There, which was originally commissioned by Harper’s Magazine, but rejected because of the liberties he took, and subsequently published by The Believer. This ran a scrupulous fact-checking process, carried out by Jim Fingal across several years, and the email exchanges between the equally exasperated D’Agata and Fingal were published as a book, The Lifespan of Fact, which, in turn, was dramatized by Jerome Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell.

Their secret to crafting an exceptional play was to convert emails into personal exchanges, and to compress the time from years to less than a week – with a deadline rushing at Jim courtesy of the third character, the magazine’s editor, Emily. Played by Sigrid Thornton in her Sydney Theatre Company debut, Emily is the arbiter in this war between Jim’s obeisance to facts and John’s to a deeper evocation.

The point is that concepts of right and wrong become blurred. Jim quite reasonably asks Emily how facts can be negotiable, while John declares that he’s not interested in accuracy: he’s interested in truth.

After the credence given to the bald-faced lies of Trump, his allies and media cronies, it’s fascinating philosophical territory, presented with the sharp wit that’s the gift of having three super-intelligent characters. Alas, director Paige Rattray opts to amplify this wit into an excessive level of clowning, and blunts the sharp edge of the writing by sometimes making the delivery of the dialogue compete with live music, courtesy of clarinettist/composer Maria Alfonsine.

Gareth Davies. Photos: Prudence Upton.

It’s not that the music isn’t good in itself (with Charles Mingus’s Goodbye Porkpie Hat being a recurrent theme representing Presley), but that the play doesn’t need embellishment, and so the whole production, including Marg Horwell’s set and the acting, itself, becomes too busy. It may even have been a false step to mount it at Roslyn Packer Theatre, as the big stage has engendered a distracting amount of lateral movement.

Gareth Davies plays John and Charles Wu plays Jim, and all three actors acquit themselves well enough, with a stronger chemistry and momentum emerging in the scenes when all are present. Nonetheless, you’re left with a sense that finer performances were to be had if it were all tighter, grittier and more constrained. Davies’ John is the most interesting creation, being so gruff and matter-of-fact as a person, while ranging so widely intellectually and poetically as a writer. Thornton’s Emily can be highly effective, and then wander out of focus, while Wu’s Jim is more intent on the comedy than the cerebral rigour. “Facts have to be the final measure of the truth,” he tells the others, and yet it’s a credit to the writing that, long before the end, you come to doubt that.

Until October 22.