"Preparation is the mortal enemy of spontaneity" - my favourite line from Here Lies Henry and hearing it would be almost worth the price of admission on its own.
Henry appears in a blaze of light, as if emerging from the womb, or descending from heaven or, perhaps, an alien spacecraft. We know not which, for sure. In fact, we know nothing for sure about Henry, as he appears in Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor's seventy-minute play, first produced (with the same actor in the title role) in 1996. TurnAround Productions (TAP; not to be confused with Tap Gallery Theatre) has revived it for the Sydney Fringe, at Newtown's New Theatre, with Matthew Hyde as Henry and with Jason Langley in the box.
The spotlit Henry is animated, but clearly nerve-wracked. He sizes up the audience, even as we size him up. (This is one of the well-known tricks MacIvor wears on his sleeve: crushing the fourth wall from the get-go.) He pretends to interact with people, as if it's spontaneous and unscripted, much as a stand-up might do, making repeated eye contact, especially with those in the front row. A couple of them fall for it. Relationships are seemingly built. He, as a guise for the clever writer, toys with us mercilessly.
Henry proceeds to tell us a string of lies. Yet, somewhere amidst his pathological yarn-spinning, there seems to reside some important truths. He holds us in suspense for the duration, such that we ache for him to reveal to us something we don't already know. The revelations never really come, but the tease is enough. Another MacIvor trademark. Even if he's determined to tell us something we don't already know, it's a while before we learn so much as Henry's full name, Henry Tom Gallery. He then embarks on a twisted tale about how he was named after his father, who might've been called Henry, or Tom. I can't quite remember. Yes, another tormenting design by the cruel, manipulative author.
Having wrapped us in a web of lies, Henry embarks on a kind of pseudo-epistemological thesis on the nature of lies. He classifies them for us. I think, according to Henry, there are eight distinct types, which behave according to certain precise rules, which sound oddly plausible, even where no real, logical argument prevails: Henry is the encyclopaedia salesman, or Mr Jolly, for existence. MacIvor's genius lies (whoops!) in making us complicit, by inveigling us into his web. And while Henry's stories, anecdotes and tidbits are probably, for the most part, arbitrary and trivial, if not downright meaningless, repetition, emphasis and charisma makes them seductive to the point of belief. Here lies an insight into what and how much we're prepared to believe, be it about spiritual awakening, get-rich-quick schemes, political masters, or spousal fidelity. As a species, one might even argue that, as evidenced throughout history, we're inclined and disposed to credulity. Neville Chamberlain was convinced of Hitler's sincerity. Nixon was convinced of his own. We all thought Bondy was a hero.
Yet, while we're being drawn in on the one hand, we're constantly thrown clues as to Henry's near-psychotic propensity for presenting subjective realities. There are loops in the monologue which see Henry return, again and again, to territory he's already traversed. It's as if he's already forgotten. Every time he relates a tale about his mother, or father, he is afflicted by a particular tic. We pretty much know he's fibbing, but we still want to endow him with the benefit of grave doubt. We have, I suppose, reasonable doubt, which maintains his innocence. And, crucially, ours as well.
Of course, we all almost certainly indulge in Henry's lexicon of lies. Constantly. We all lead lives of quiet desperation and aren't above spinning or varnishing the bald facts of our lives. It's the easiest and cheapest, least risky way to seem to improve them.
Like Water, currently playing at Sydney Theatre, Here Lies Henry throws out the rule book on what defines theatre and how it must be made. Thanks to a stark (and, at particular moments, starkers) set, full impetus is thrown onto the performance. Good decision. Matthew Hyde manages to flawlessly deliver an exceedingly complex text that is riveting from start to finish. Not to mention nuanced. Without a doubt, even with several months of unseen acting to come, his must stand as one of the best showings of 2012. It's as much a tribute to Langley, too, who's obviously sought excellence. James Luscombe's sound and Blake Garner's lighting are superlative in their complementarity too.
Without an odd of a lie, Here Lies Henry is a find. Genuinely edgy, this is a real Fringe benefit.
TurnAround Productions presents
Here Lies Henry
Written by Daniel MacIvor
Dates: 17 - 23 September
Venue: New Theatre, Newtown