You gotta get brave: Belvoir's Jasper Jones

A darling of the Australian literary landscape ever since it was published in 2009, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones is the story of fourteen year old Charlie Bucktin who lives in small-town Western Australia, and dreams of writing the Great Australian Novel. But when Jasper Jones appears at his window one night, Charlie knows something’s happened. Something terrible has happened that night, and the two boys take it upon themselves to get to the bottom of it. With a beautiful warmth of spirit and a keenly-observed ear for humour, Silvey’s story does not shy away from the darker side of small town life, and manages to bring the politics of the Sixties into this coming-of-age novel in a way that does not feel forced or abbreviated. Following its premiere in Perth in 2014 by Barking Gecko Theatre Company, Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Jasper Jones now opens at Belvoir as the first production for 2016 – and indeed for Eamon Flack’s artistic directorship – and in many respects, there could not be a better show to kick-start the year.

Drenched in the very Australian golden light, Michael Hankin’s set is quintessentially Australian, but the presence of the gumtree reaching up and over the stage creates a sense of menace, a darkness which Silvey, Mulvany, and director Anne-Louise Sarks use to particular effect throughout the play to add mood, locations, and character to the West-Australian town of Corrigan. Centre-stage stands Charlie’s house, realised in all its dusty sun-blown detail, but it is also many other houses besides, created through two movable sections which are rearranged as necessary; in these instances, even though they are created through moving two large set pieces around, there’s a sense of movement, of urgency which adds to Jasper and Charlie’s search for the truth. Mel Page’s costumes are also fine-tuned to the period detail of the 1960s, to small-town Australia, and there is a tangible delight in the lighter moments, sensitively balanced against menacing silhouettes and the darker reality of the town. Matt Scott’s lighting beautifully captures the harsh thick golden light, the thin moonlight, and the emotional warmth, alongside the almost casual brutality which exists in Silvey-via-Mulvany’s story. Steve Toulmin’s score and sound design creates the right balance of nostalgia, effervescence, menace, and isolation, whilst not forgetting the requisite crows, cicadas, dogs, and sirens which seem so Australian that to forget them would be akin to insult.
Tom Conroy brings a geeky teenagerness to Charlie which is both warming and gently achingly accurate. While in other instances a performance this earnest might seem overly saccharine, here Conroy’s eagerness, enthusiasm, and confusion draw us further in to the story, make us want to know what happens, make us care about him, about Jasper, about Laura, Eliza, and all the rest of them. Guy Simon’s Jasper is cheeky at times, but there’s a strength to him, a slight weariness which makes him determined, dangerous, powerful, and it makes a nice contrast to Conroy’s wide-eyed naivety. Like Conroy, Matilda Ridgway’s Eliza captures the awkward teenagerness of her character with surprising accuracy, and there are many moments where her interactions with Charlie are heartwarming, tender, and eversoslightly emotionally painful, albeit in a nostalgic way. Ridgway also plays Laura, Eliza’s older sister, and the contrast between her characterisation of the two sisters – often with barely a moment between them – are poignant and quite moving.
As Jeffrey Lu, Charlie’s cricket-mad friend, Charles Wu has the potential to go down in the history of Belvoir as one of the theatre’s favourite underdogs, just as his literary counterpart is many people’s favourite character in Silvey’s novel. (And yes, the cricket scene is there, in all its beautiful detail.) But underneath his enthusiasm, his multiple cries of “Sasssssytime!”, and his running series of “Would you prefer…” questions with Charlie is a poignant realisation that he is very much an outsider, just as Jasper Jones is, that his outsiderness is very much a part of his daily life, one he has grown up with. But it still doesn’t make his sadness at his father’s ruined garden or the fate of his Vietnamese relatives any less moving or pertinent. Kate Mulvany’s portrayal of Charlie’s mother is very much a character in her own right, no matter how much Silvey tries to rectify this in his novel. There’s a fierceness, a weariness, and a misplaced gentleness to Mulvany’s performance of Mrs Bucktin that contrasts with her (ever-so-close-to-scene-stealing) performance as the school bully and cricket captain Warwick Trent. Steve Rodgers brings a quiet warmth and dignity to Mr Bucktin, and a poignant burning need to tell the truth in his ‘Mad’ Jack Lionel; if you follow the analogy of Jasper Jones being an Australian To Kill A Mockingbird, then Rodgers effectively plays Atticus Finch and Boo Radley, yet he steers away from the temptation to play them as caricatures, and imbues them with a touching and moving realness, a humanity which shines, as it does with every other character on the Belvoir stage in this play.
Under Anne-Louise Sarks’ direction, Mulvany’s script shines. There’s a warmth here which creeps under your skin and makes you smile, a softly-shaded nostalgia which makes you yearn for your childhood, for those long carefree summer days, but the darkness – which initially comes in the first five minutes of the show, and returns in different guises throughout – does not dampen it, merely makes the lightness stronger, keener, more necessary. And even though the darkness – and the very visceral impact of it – is shocking at first, especially being so very early on in the piece, Silvey-via-Mulvany – alongside Sarks – use it to their benefit, and create a powerful, incredibly moving, and particularly strong show which seems to reset the clock on what Belvoir can do, or at least what this incarnation of Belvoir is capable of.
While part of Mulvany’s theatrical conceit – and indeed, Sarks’ staging amplifies this – is for Charlie to step outside of the narrative for a moment to talk directly to the audience, a device we’ve seen quite frequently over the past couple of years in Sydney, here you don’t really mind when it’s Conroy’s Charlie doing so, because his earnestness draws us further in to the story, makes us allies in his search for the truth, make us all a part of the story, a witness to the racism, the violence, and the darkness which we still face in our lives today. What Mulvany has done in her adaptation is to expand upon the relationships between characters, expand the female characters’ function in the story, as well as enhance the ever-present search for the missing girl, and the ramifications of Charlie and Jasper’s actions at the outset of the story. While Silvey creates the world of the township of Corrigan in all its detail, and gives us some of the most enjoyable cricket scenes ever committed to paper, as well as several scenes beautiful enough to earn the novel “sentimental-classic status” (and don’t worry, they’re all here too), Mulvany fillets, reshapes, expands, contracts, and reworks Silvey’s story to suit the theatrical space, to suit the requirements of theatrical storytelling, yet never loses for one moment the incredible generosity of spirit or bigness of heart that every reader falls in love with.
If there is one quibble to Sarks’ staging which hampers this conceit, it’s that some subsequent moments are blocked in a way that leaves the centre of the space empty: characters interact on the far edges of the stage (there is only one instance in which this works truly effectively); characters stand with their back to the audience for too long; the use of the stairs – while, for the most part, is well-handled and suitably inclusive of the audience – occasionally serves to isolate sections of the audience from the clarity of the story-telling.
Quibbles aside, there is enough heart in this play to last you a year, and it will be a rare treat indeed to see another dose of heart and compassion this beautiful in 2016. Indeed, this is where Silvey-via-Mulvany-and-Sarks’ Jasper Jones seems to serve as an overture for Belvoir 2016 and Eamon Flack’s artistic directorship in a larger sense. “[This season is] about how we live together,” Flack says in the season book. “Family is a big theme, so too is society… There are plays from the past, plays from now, plays from now about the past. There are plays from here and plays from other countries. There are angry plays, political plays, celebrations. There are splendid big acts of community, and solo feats of daring. There are comedies, romances, fables, epics, whodunnits. There are lonely tales, vast canvases, humble undertakings, foolhardy undertakings… All must be included, all must be spoken for, and spoken for brilliantly, with the full force of human impressiveness.
In this respect, Flack and his fellow theatre-makers perfectly capture the sentiment behind Jasper Jones’ lake-side plea to Charlie: “You gotta get brave.” As a maxim to live by, it’s among the better ones; as a way to encapsulate the year ahead of theatre-making, it certainly bodes very well indeed.

Here’s to a munificent 2016.

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