Anyone who’s finished high school will know the feeling of emptiness that infects the mind following its completion. Stable ground falls away beneath you, and what once was regimented and safe is now discorded and unclear. It’s like the awkward no-mans’ land following the climax of a story; thirteen years’ worth of build-up leads to those last few weeks of hand-ins and exams, and then you receive your graduation certificate and you’re done – the story is resolved. But life disagrees, and continues onwards, and you realise that you actually didn’t have anything resembling a clear plan in mind for the other side of this conclusion. To your surprise, the world keeps spinning.
I’ll Be Fine dramatises this post-resolution irresolution through its fire-cracking dialogue and wheel-spinning, road-tripping narrative structure. It’s raw and engrossing theatre, with many stellar scenes which simply involve actors Ben Wilson and James Russell spinning yarns that feel sweetly organic, as the pair try to make sense of their respective dark pasts, and foggy futures. Subtle lighting and ambient sound effects accentuate the strength of these performances, and not once do Wilson or Russell falter under the emotional weight of the story.
The characters of Jude (Russell) and Brian (Wilson) admirably elbow aside the ‘New Zealand Bloke’ stereotype, managing to accurately illustrate the complexity of modern New Zealand masculinity. Jude is a hyper-liberal chap raised by two mums; there’s a casually lovely moment in the first scene where he corrects Brian for using ‘gay’ in a derogative manner. He’s feeling increasingly hollow following a devastating past relationship and an ongoing awareness of his absent father figure. Brian’s a burdened creative, with the weight of family tragedy and societal expectations beginning to show their strain, and a fountain of unanswered questions sprouting from the budding scriptwriter’s post-school confusion. Both men feel daunted by their lack of direction, and aren’t afraid to scream and cry and fall to their knees as they stuff these emotions into a Toyota Previa and venture around the North Island. Thankfully the script doesn’t meander like its characters; it wastes no time, with every scene packing emotional punch while advancing the plot.
Wilson’s witty and potent scriptwriting heightens the sense of the environment as a character in itself; scenes begin with bullet-pointed land-marking of the space Jude and Brian inhabit, be it a dinky Chinese takeaway or an empty beach at midnight. Like many great New Zealand plays, I’ll Be Fine also uses localness to its advantage, wringing some of its best jokes out of commentary on high school life in Wellington.
The play’s emotional climax could perhaps be a bit longer, but manages to close the story nicely. The pair are forced to confront that the ending of high school is actually more of a beginning, and that the age of 18 is infantile in the grand scheme of a human life. From here derives the play’s title; Jude and Brian’s road has been long, bumpy and confusing, but it’s not at all over. They’ve got miles more to go, and they’ll be fine.