They Say He Fell: personal grief transmuted into universal tragedy
by Drew Rowsome
They Say He Fell is an elegiac exploration of grief. The story unfolds in a series of sumptuous visuals to the melodious narration by Steven Bush. He plays Nir Bareket, a photographer whose words and memories They Say He Fell is based on (Bareket, now deceased, shares a writing credit with Donna-Michelle St Bernard). The character Nir is also played by a series of puppets, faceless and lumpen like therapy dolls, but eerily full of life.
Two photographs, separated by time and tragedy, trigger the flood of memories, the struggle to explain and understand. Nir/Bush uses a series of metaphors attempting to unite the art of photography with life, and death, itself. The characters have attempted to erase their grief but of course that doesn't work. Nir/Bush is also given to weighty pronouncements like,
If we took away all the words that hurt, we would be silent. And perhaps we could avoid hurt.
Just as silence, the space between the notes, is part of the music, what is left out of the composition is part of the photograph.
They Say He Fell moves at a stately pace with long passages of silence - space between the imagery and words - that is described as an attempt to mitigate the catharsis of grief we know is coming. A compromise is reached and we empathize deeply but are left on the precipice of sobbing. The images - created with shadows, projections and puppetry - are beautiful and haunting though in such an intimate space the set up and changes are distracting when they don't manage to achieve a balletic flow.
Bush's voice is compelling as it slowly rises to the dramatic denouement where a single family's grief becomes a harsh universal lesson. Physically he is constrained by the small space and a frailty that leaves only his hands to weave a spell. Also he frequently reads his lines from a book propped on a music stand, breaking the spell as soon as he breaks eye contact.
The ensemble are, all but one, assigned a familial role - Christopher Stanton as the father, Virgilia Griffith as the sister, Maxine Heppner as the grief-stricken but proud mother, and En Lai Mah as the strapping doomed brother - and also fill in as a multitude of characters to illustrate Nir's storytelling. Tom Arthur Davis takes on the outsider roles, the bearer of bad news, the seduced and the survivor, his leading man looks subsumed to a series of subtle sad portraits. The cast all morph very well, as mouldable as the puppets who play the young Nir.
Though set in post-World War II Israel/Palestine, They Say He Fell is gentle with the politics. The story moves slowly, from different angles, and the parallels to current horrors are never directly made. And thus one man's stories, ramblings about grief, drive home all the more powerfully as we take the journey with him. On the way out, among the other hushed and dazed, I nearly tripped on a puppet propped on the edge of the stage, waiting for the next performance. I wanted to gather him in my arms and try to console, to fill that blank grieving face.