That Eye The Sky – Does Tim Winton need a little realism with his magic? (Theatre Review)
That Eye,The Sky
New Theratre, 15 March to 16 April 2016
Photos by Bob Seary
When Patrick White lamented in 1958 the absence of a complex and mature Australian literary system, he said:
“In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is.”
It can be argued that none of this has changed much since 1958, even with the advent of Tim Winton whose contribution to Australian conservative writing (Christian, passionately pro-country, nostalgic, nationalistic, anti-intellectual and anti-academic) is the biggest thing since Les Murray to hit the Australian book shelves. Embracing that which Patrick White hated, Winton is more popular with middle class readers than he is with academics, makes money from his books, eschewing self-examination in preference for nostalgic self-representation such that readers he bonds with (mostly Baby Boomers) form passionate attachments to his work. He is called “intuitive” and a writer from the school of “magic realism” rather than the more dismissive terms preserved for female writers such as “emotional” or “unrealistic” and he controls a strong media persona that includes the strange proposition that he is somehow reclusive. He is a specific writer who works very much from the position of his message, even as he uses a mystical sentimentality to pretend there isn’t one. However, his work is always opinionated, strangely direct, beautifully written and in love with a version of Australia that may never have properly existed but thrives in the rose-coloured memories of a certain Australian reading belt.
It is interesting then, that such a popular writer appealing very directly to populist themes is so difficult to adapt. That Eye, The Sky has been made into a film that wasn’t much chop and now we see Richard Roxburgh and Justin Monjo giving adaptation a serious go in for the stage currently showing at The New Theatre in Newtown Sydney. That Eye, The Sky on stage at The New Theatre is certainly a very beautiful affair, with super talent Ben Brockman revelling in the magic realism aspects of That Eye, The Sky to evoke a lighting display that will astound the hardest theatre hearts. Equally clever is Tom Bannerman’s giant grid looking down on the action as if it were the trellis upon wich all things grow and die. The use of damaged mannequins to represent characters equally absent and present is exciting as is the overpowering emergence of sound created by Hugo Smart and Dean Barry Revell. It’s the staging, the lights, the sound and the props that really call forth the spirit of the best of Tim Winton in this production and make the theatre experiences very exciting particularly for those who have read the novel.
Structurally, Winton’s opaque style is not quite so easy to translate when it comes to the adaptation itself. This comes from the problem of Tim Winton’s message v’s his writing style, which one could argue are at odds for the literary community. In this David Burrowes directed production emphasis is placed on the magical aspects of Winton’s work – understandable when the indie theatre community are taking on such a conservative writer. Roxborough and Monjo have leaned toward the beauty of the words also, rather than Winton’s prevalent messages and while this makes for a truly beautiful production to witness, a lot of the meandering structure of the book becomes tricky to trace. This is not necessarily a problem, and Winton’s work deserves a theatrical examination, not just because it is so loved, but also because literature needs to be examined (especially when it is so loved) and we need to look deeply into what we are reading. Winton’s work forces you down a certain path and it is that path that is lost in adaptation. It didn’t seem to work for film but in the theatre, there is less place for the writer to hide and subliminal aspects of his work, that may not be so obvious in the surreal fantasies of his novels are brought to the surface in an interesting way. An excellent example of this is the relationship between the characters Tegwyn Flack (Emma Wright) and Henry Warburton (Shaun Martindale). While Henry Warburton takes on a sinister role in the novel, there is something about seeing him on a stage that jolts the character past Winton’s message into what Winton cannot hide from himself. Equally interesting is the revelation of Ort (Joel Harwood) who is a child in the book but beautifully performed by a man in the production. Ort is still a child, but the physical representation of him drags us deeper into Winton’s writing to expose certain agendas the writer may (or may not of course) have had when working on this surreal and beautiful piece.
The important themes are all in tact here, make no mistake. The impossibly vulnerability of the Flack family, the importance of nurturing and caring females, the beauty of idealistic relationships with the land, christianity and its power to save or destroy, magic realism in the every day and above all else the beauty of a childs perspective are preserved faithfully by the adaptation and the wonderful cast who are all on point and a great pleasure to watch. Romney Stanton as Alice Flack is particularly powerful in her understated fluctuations between leadership and a desperate desire for help.
This is a fine production at The New Theatere made all the more so if you are a fan of Tim Winton’s work. It is challenging and interesting for his readership and an important adaptation in Australia’s relationship to its own literature.