The Belvoir St Theatre stage is an intimate space, well-suited to the scenes of private family life which comprise Tell Me I’m Here. Directed by Leticia Cáceres, the show is adapted from Australian journalist and filmmaker Anne Deveson’s 1991 memoir of the same name. Drawing attention from across Australia for its portrayal of complex family issues, the memoir traverses Anne’s relationship with her son Jonathan who has schizophrenia. The stage adaptation holds true to much of the story’s original narrative, however the change in medium results in a different impact upon the audience.
The stage, designed by Stephen Curtis, is a white void with a simple table set against a cabinet backdrop — a simple presentation of a tidy and well-educated family home. The almost claustrophobic atmosphere pulls the audience into the unravelling narrative.
Throughout the show Tom Conroy, acting as Jonathan, scrawls upon the white walls, visually depicting the nature of Jonathan’s internal world.
Belvoir’s adaptation of Tell Me I’m Here differs from page to stage, shifting the way the story is presented. Tom Conroy’s performance as Jonathan is deeply expressive, as he conveys the complex relations between siblings as they age with tenderness. The mother and son relationship consumes the emotional core of the play in part due to Tom Conroy’s expressive acting. His drawings on the walls become reminiscent of scenes from A Beautiful Mind (2001), and other media where the condition of schizophrenia, so often stigmatised, is depicted through similar techniques.
The stories of disabled people are frequently and harmfully told by non-disabled individuals, with parents often speaking over their voices. The play narrowly avoids this trope by centralising Anne’s experience of motherhood. Tell Me I’m Here narrates her story. Deborah Galanos gives an expressive performance as Anne, balancing compassion with a candid intensity. The play’s storyline is conveyed to the audience through Anne’s perspective, which grounds the family narrative. We witness her experiences. The multifaceted dynamic between her and Jonthan is the work’s emotional core, and it is clear there is much love and care between them.
Anne’s story reveals her struggle to support Jonathan amidst uncaring systems and a lack of services for mental illness. Anne critiques a public health system which is unwilling to support her family. The first act shows her repeated struggle with therapists and doctors, who seem to care more about what section of the law Jonathan will be charged under, rather than offering meaningful support. This becomes increasingly clear as Jonathan has more extensive interactions with the police than with healthcare.
But as the play goes on, it is Jonathan’s absence from Anne’s life that seems to define their relationship. In an emotional moment during the play’s final act, Anne realises how little she knows about her own son. She fails to believe he is capable of maintaining friendships, and is ignorant of what her son does when they are apart. As it is Anne’s story, Jonathan’s friends, often strange people, are kept at the fringes of the narrative.
Anne’s life and the complex issues she struggles with are stories worth telling, balancing motherhood with her career, accepting divorce, and new love. Her struggles with guilt due to the way Jonthan is treated are compelling for the audience. The complex relationship with her three children provide unique insight into living with a family member with mental illness.
On the other hand, we as audiences should not fail to seek perspectives from people with disabilities themselves. Tell Me I’m Here is about more than mental health; it delves deep into family relations, healing, and trauma. It is about unconditional love, even when it is hard.
Tell Me I’m Here is playing at Belvoir St Theatre until September 25, tickets available here.