All The Things I Lied About is more than just another autopsy of the post-truth society. Beginning as a monologue on Trump, Katie Bonna’s one-woman show develops into a retelling of her dad’s marital infidelity and ends as a pared-back confessional on Bonna’s own instinct for lying. The journey from the political to the personal is affecting but is in danger of drawing a moral equivalence between Trump’s lies and Bonna’s own lies. Ultimately, however, Trump provides a springboard for a dissection of the dishonesty that courses through the human psyche. Specifically Bonna’s own psyche.
The first two thirds – monologue and family history – are packaged as a TED talk on the science of lying. Bonna uses props, metaphors and audience participation, with varying degrees of success, to ask: why do people lie? A nest of Russian dolls is used in a clever illustration of how layers of deceit are hardwired into our brains from just 6 months of age. But the more interesting revelation is the troubling story of Bonna’s dad gaslighting her mum. To gaslight is ‘to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity’. We learn that the word comes from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband persuades his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, that she is insane – dimming the gas lights without her knowing.
The staging is sometimes unconvincing. At one point Bonna lip syncs to an audio clip from Gaslight as exposed bulbs blink. But the thrust of Bonna’s argument is convincing: people lie to others and, importantly, to themselves in order to create a reality in which they are right. Why? To avoid the cognitive dissonance created when an ostensibly good person does categorically bad things. We are all the hero in the story of our life; and heroes can be bullied, hard-done by and complicated, but they can never be wrong. So we manipulate the world around us in order to reconcile several, alternative truths. Yes, I did cheat on my boyfriend, but really I am a super nice person. Inevitably, the two opposing narratives collapse into one until the lie becomes the accepted reality. In gaslighting, the victim’s narrative is eclipsed in favour of the gaslighter’s ego. Trump, Bonna posits, is gaslighting us all.
The TED talk conceit does begin to fray; perhaps that’s why the real talks are capped at 18 minutes. But just as it begins to wear thin, Bonna abandons the framing device and launches into a brutally honest character assassination of herself. Instead of hearing how she is the victim of lying, we learn that she is also a liar. She is terrified, she admits, that she is the same as her dad. [Spoiler:] She confesses that she has cheated on all fourteen of her previous boyfriends and that she, like her dad, gaslighted those that questioned her fidelity. Hearing someone on stage confess to genuinely cruel acts of dishonesty is both shocking and the part of the production the resonates most truthfully. Lying is easy, Bonna reminds us. It comes naturally. It’s telling the truth that goes against our evolutionary instincts. We all ignore truths to save ourselves the shame of guilt, the discomfort of doing the right things, or even just the boredom of saying no.
Bonna asks that we stop lying about this truth and start living, uncomfortably, with our cognitive dissonance. If we don’t give money to charity then we cannot call ourselves charitable. She is problematising our ability to blithely believe in one adjusted, hypocritical reality. The next logical leap might be that because we are all guilty of lying we can’t condemn Trump for being human. But Bonna never explicitly makes this point. We’re left wondering whether the moral standard for politicians is necessarily higher than that for individuals. To twist Nixon’s infamous phrase: when the president does it, does that mean it is still forgivable? But instead the show navel-gazes, asking us to be honest with ourselves.
When presented with a donation bucket for Women’s Aid at the end of the show, I stop myself from lying about having no change and produce 72p. It was Tony Kushner who first made me realise that change, of the loose variety, inhabits the same word as change with a capital C, the sort that we hope signals progress. I don’t think this is lost on Bonna. The writing and the production waver at points, but the play will hopefully produce at least a small amount of both types of change.
All The Things I Lied About is on until 6th May 2017 at the Soho Theatre. Click here for more details.