MiNDFOOD reviews: ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ tackles the complexities of truth

By Gill Canning

<em>Charles Wu, Sigrid Thornton, Gareth Davies and Maria Alfonsine in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Lifespan of a Fact, 2022. Photo: Prudence Upton</em>
Charles Wu, Sigrid Thornton, Gareth Davies and Maria Alfonsine in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Lifespan of a Fact, 2022. Photo: Prudence Upton
Sydney Theatre Company's latest show raises the question: Is honesty always the best policy?

What is your relationship with the truth? Do you believe it is always wrong to lie – and do you expect the same from your friends, family and partners? After all, Shakespeare himself said, “No legacy is so rich as honesty” – and as one with a pretty impressive legacy, he should know.

But what about when telling a story? Have you ever been guilty of embellishing slightly for dramatic effect? To get a laugh? To make a point? Or perhaps to impress a potential suitor?

The Lifespan of a Fact concerns a long-form magazine piece written by American essayist John D’Agata about the suicide of teenager Levi Presley in Las Vegas in 2002. Jim Fingal, a young intern at the magazine planning to run the piece, was assigned to fact check D’Agata’s article. Due to the fact that Fingal found dozens – possibly hundreds – of inaccuracies and untruths in the article, it took an astonishing seven years for a version of the article to be finally agreed upon and published.

Sigrid Thornton and Charles Wu in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Lifespan of a Fact, 2022. Photo: Prudence Upton

Fingal and D’Agata ended up collaborating on a book about the experience, that was in turn adapted into the play currently being performed by the Sydney Theatre Company.

In this three-hander, the fictitious character of Emily Penrose, editor of the magazine publishing the essay, is played by Sigrid Thornton in her debut performance for the STC. After a stellar screen career (The Man from Snowy River, Seachange, Wentworth), it’s a delight to see her as Penrose, all sleek bob and perky high heels – physically diminutive but embodying the much larger entity that must wrangle the two men into some kind of agreement.

Up-and-coming actor Charles Wu (Doctor, Doctor) never fails to impress. As Fingal, he embodies youthful enthusiasm and earnest thoroughness and as the play goes on, displays a growing determination not to back down as the older man tries to exert his will. Gareth Davies as John D’Agata is Fingal’s foil, arguing that “The wrong facts get in the way of the story” and that Fingal is “poisoning” his “creative process”. As he states in his defence, “I’m not interested in accuracy. I’m interested in truth.” (Let’s ponder that).

Gareth Davies and Charles Wu in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Lifespan of a Fact, 2022. Photo: Prudence Upton

The veracity of the stories we read in newspapers and magazines is undoubtedly important – never more so than now – in this post-Trumpian-perhaps-again-Trumpian era – when some media outlets give outright lies as much stock and credence as they do real news. But is there space for literary licence when it serves to accentuate a point, perhaps underscoring a greater truth about something as societally concerning as youth suicide? And what does that mean for how we present our own ‘truths’?

As Penrose points out to Fingal, “There is nothing more important than story. The right story at the right time changes the way people look at the events in their own lives.” We are left, quite rightly, to make up our own mind.

The Lifespan of a Fact

Sydney Theatre Company

26 Sep – 22 Oct 2022

sydneytheatre.com.au

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