been | I’ll Be Fine

Assembled by playwright Ben Wilson and director Ryan Knighton, “I’ll be Fine” left a heavy hand on my heart and I couldn’t be happier.

Best friends Brian (Ben Wilson) and Jude (James Russell) find themselves in a state of limbo that can only be described as the “post high school blues”. An air of middle-class privilege and existential crises makes it apparent that both of them are quite stuck. With neither sure of what to do with themselves, Jude presents a solution: a search for his biological father. With all the ingredients of a good kiwi road trip, a dodgy van and lemon chicken included, the boys set out on their way to eventual self-discovery.

En-route, we meet a dodgy drug dealer, an ex-schoolmate turned petrol attendee, and a grandfather who is slightly too nefarious for my liking. There are also glimpses of a younger sister Alice, and an ex-girlfriend Sarah, whose stories are both expertly unravelled by Wilson throughout the play.

As a writer, Wilson leaves nothing to be desired. Not only does he manage to encapsulate an entire generation’s emotions, he does them a great honour. Every word spoken rang true to so many that sat amongst the audience. Yet, there was never a moment where I thought “this is such a cliché”. Even the moments that were very typically Kiwi will have you shaking your head at just how accurate they are. This shows Wilson’s knack for homing in on reality, a trait that many writers seem to lose track of. It gives the play an air of relatability that sits with you after you leave. I found myself remembering the moments where I too had felt just as the boys do. Wilson is not only capable of writing two contrasting characters brilliantly, he has the ability to subtly build moments, creating climaxes that are unexpected and shocking in the best sense.

As a familiar face on the Wellington theatre scene, director Ryan Knighton has certainly concreted himself as someone to watch here in Auckland. He creates a flow between the narration and actuality with enjoyable interchanges which almost mirror Brian and Jude’s repartee. Knighton’s vision is well thought out, including a scene where there is a moment of separated duopoly. Jude and Brian perform soliloquies to the audience, interchanging line by line, which reaches into the audience with such poetic finesse that I still get chills when I think about it. He also creates an inception-like quality to a dream sequence Jude has about meeting this mysterious biological father that left me wondering whether it was just a dream, or was it reality. It shows just how well equipped Knighton is to direct such a play, being able to effectively portray insecurities of the characters through inspired performance conventions.

With a change of scenery from the Wellington shows, the smaller space at the Basement Theatre creates an intimate environment that is perfect for what the play has to offer. The set mainly consists of a sofa and the occasional suitcase: the height of minimalism. This allows for the wall of movie posters behind it to become the main feature. It ties in nicely with the love of film both Brian and Jude display throughout and had my inner film buff tingling with joy.  Wilson and Russell manage to turn the set into their third character, personified by scene painting that is both well directed and well portrayed.

I did have assumptions coming into a two-man play. I was unsure about the chemistry and whether or not each would deliver their performances equally. However, there is a saying about assumptions and it certainly put me in my place. Never have I seen two actors that feed off in other in such a way as Wilson and Russell. The two have an incredible energy about them, interchanging between rapid-fire banter, intense rage and good old kiwi bloke talk. Both cleverly bounce off of one another, with neither stealing the other’s limelight. The friendship of the boys is prevalent the entire way. Whether it is Brian jubilantly chattering whilst Jude is attempting to push the car up the hill, or Jude rambling on about his sorrow for sweet ex-girlfriend Sarah with an uncomfortable Brian squirming beside him, there was always a love between the two. It was refreshing to see a broken down construct of masculinity to allow both characters to be vulnerable with each other.

Wilson doesn’t seem the type to be overtly chatty but he pulled off Brian seamlessly. He emits that “just out of high school and I’m doing nothing with my life” attitude all too well and delineates the emotions to the point where you nod along in agreement because it really is true. It is easy to make the assumption that Wilson has characterised Brian as the comic relief: he talks at an almost impossible place, with an air of hyperactivity that is endearing and filled with an optimism that seems unfailing which only falters when brought back to earth by his complementary counterpart, Jude. Yet Wilson’s encompassing grasp of the role adds a depth that is less endearing and more devastating, with revelations of his past that left my heart, and my mouth, on the floor.

Whereas Wilson does encompass all things Brian, Russell metamorphosises into Jude. He has no problem inhabiting a sense of self-loathing and a quiet intensity that rivals Wilson’s energetic performance. Jude is the pessimist to Brian’s optimism that balances out the pair perfectly. Whilst I took Jude as the silent type, Russell builds this quiet intensity to a cataclysmic eruption as it is revealed Jude too has a warped past, the loss of love weighing heavy on his heart. This is where Russell is in his prime, allowing vulnerability to spill into his words and projecting emotion so flawlessly that I had to remind myself countless times that Jude is not James, he is Jude. Nonetheless, even in the more reflective moments, Russell emanates a subtle longing for a father that has you yearning to give Jude a hug and tell him that everything will be fine.

A poignant coming of age reflection on life after high school, catch Ben Wilson and James Russell in I’LL BE FINE this week at The Basement. Tickets and details here.

Contains strong language and mental health issues.