Cloudstreet. By Nick Enright, Justin Monjo and Tim Winton, directed by Matthew Lutton, performance by Black Swan State Theatre Company WA, 22 Feb. 2020, His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, WA. 12 February-15 March 2020. Tickets: $39-$159
Images: Philip Gostelow, courtesy of Black Swan Theatre Company
On Saturday February 22, I joined a throng of Perthonalities as we descended on His Majesty’s Theatre to attend the opening of the stage adaptation of Tim Winton’s 1998 classic Cloudstreet. The story follows the Lambs and the Pickles as the two families are brought to number 1 Cloud Street in Perth. The Pickles left Geraldton when Sam Pickles lost his fingers in a winch, and the Lambs left Margaret River when their son Fish almost drowned, surviving with a brain injury. Both families have their own sets of problems and baggage but the mysterious house on Cloud Street brings them together in a way neither expected.
The stage adaptation of Cloudstreet boasts a running time of 5 hours and 25 minutes (80 minutes dinner break included), and admittedly I was a little skeptical prior to going. The thought of sitting in a theatre for over 4 hours was fairly daunting. Going into the play I wondered how a cast of 11 actors could make the iconic Dolly and Sam Pickles, Oriel and Lester Lamb, and Rosie, Fish and Quick come to life. But they certainly did it justice. Natasha Herbert’s rendition of the loud-mouthed, promiscuous alcoholic Dolly Pickles was a standout. Her raspy voice, shock of blonde hair and swagger on stage brought Dolly to life as a woman who is not only struggling with her past trauma but is lost in the life she finds herself living. Bert LaBonté and Greg Stone as Sam Pickles and Lester Lamb respectively brought an energy and empathy to the characters that made the relationship between the two feel authentic and compassionate. Bert LaBonté’s comic timing was outstanding and it reinforced him as one of Australia’s finest actors.
But it was the set design that stole the show. Costume and set designer Zoë Atkinson brought the magic of Cloudstreet to life. The story famously veers into magical realism (perhaps a nod to the Noongar history of the land on which it’s set?), and Atkinson brought this to life through the set design. When we first enter Cloud Street, the walls of the house shoot out from the sides of the stage, as if the house itself is alive and moving, which it certainly seems in the novel. However, it’s in the quintessential scene where Quick and Fish Lamb are rowing the boat back from Fremantle to Crawley, when they enter a space where sky and sea meet, that Atkinson made the magic feel real. I was astounded to see the stage flooded with ankle deep water, casting wavy shadows that danced across the walls and ceiling of the theatre. This was when the magic and spirit of the story was discernible.
Nick Enright and Justin Monjo, who adapted the novel, have produced a play that does a great job at bringing the classic story to the stage. While there are arguments the story is too patriarchal, too ‘white’, too simplistic in its representation of Indigenous Australia, the story is also an established Australian narrative that has stood the test of time. Enright and Monjo have reworked the plot to incorporate more of the Indigenous voice, and Perth’s own Ebony McGuire and Ian Michael brought these voices to life on stage. Sure, it could be argued that it’s tokenistic and unauthentic, but that’s not how it felt on the night. Enright and Monjo have included Noongar Language in the adaptation and I thought it brought a more compassionate voice to an otherwise quite ‘white’ story.
The production received a well-deserved standing ovation as the production ended at 11.30pm. As the crowds milled out, I overheard snippets of conversations range from “breathtaking” to “too much sex” and “too long.” I don’t know why anyone thought there was too much sex. At most there were two scenes containing any sort of sexual act but each to their own. It certainly wasn’t too long. Four hours is a long play, but it didn’t feel long. I wasn’t checking my watch throughout the performance, a habit I otherwise indulge in frequently when out. The performances felt fresh, the set design was spectacular, and the adaptation did the novel justice. It’s a risky business taking on a classic, not to mention in its hometown, but as I jumped on my bike to ride home along the river, a little of the magic Winton created in the story followed me. I could see where the river and the sky met, and it made me wonder about the spirituality of this land and water; the history of this country lies in the land and sometimes we get to see small glimpses of it.
Josefine Wang is a research assistant at UWA and the professional development officer for the English Teachers Association of WA. She is currently working on the Big Picture Project at UWA which investigates the nexus between secondary and tertiary English and Literature. Prior to this she worked in the secondary education sector as an English teacher, focusing particularly on ATAR English and student engagement. Even though she does not work in the secondary context anymore, Josefine is still an active member of the education community and continues to coordinate and deliver professional development across WA.