Kate Champion’s revival of That Eye, The Sky reveals a promising physical approach to theatrical writing, says Jane Howard. But she needs a stronger text
We don’t see much of the Flack family’s lives before catastrophe hits. 12-year old Ort Flack (Tim Overton) stands above the stage, introducing his home, his family, and the sky. Then everything changes: his father Sam (Bill Allert) is in a catastrophic car accident and the family anxiously wait for news from the hospital. Sam returns against all odds, paralysed and non-verbal, his family wondering how much of their father remains in his fractured body.
Ort’s mother Alice (Elena Carapetis) is struggling to cope when a stranger, and Henry Warburton (Christopher Pitman) appears with an offer of help. As Henry’s life becomes becomes entwined with the family, he reveals more of his hand: he is a preacher, here to offer salvation.
That Eye, The Sky was Tim Winton’s third novel. It was adapted for theatre by Justin Monjo and Richard Roxburgh in 1994, in a production also directed by Roxburgh. Here it returns to the stage in a production by director Kate Champion at the State Theatre Company of South Australia.
Designer Geoff Cobham, a long-term collaborator of Champion, uses the vast stage to pit a delicate balance of space and soft materials against the harshness of rural Australia. The central set piece, a white, plastic cloth, plays host to projections, becoming a breathing eye above the stage that gives an otherworldly grandeur to this poor rural family.
In many ways, the work feels like a showcase for Champion. After an extensive career as a choreographer and director of physical and dance-theatre, That Eye, The Sky signals her move into text-based theatre. The scope and scale of this production gives her ample opportunities to exhibit her talents: an ambitious story, a length of 100 minutes, a cast of eight, a big stage and a budget to match.
Unfortunately Monjo and Roxburgh’s adaptation is tenuous, and Champion doesn’t yet have the aptitude to hide a script’s weaknesses. That Eye, The Sky is strongest when it is wordless: a dream dance sequence between the young Ort and his father, for example, or a moment when you think someone is sticking their hand into two inches of water and their whole body is engulfed. You can see it in the way Alice (Elena Carapetis) wears an absolute exhaustion on her face, or in how Tegwyn (Kate Cheel) huffs and pouts with teenage energy. Or when you don’t realise Champion has built imaginary walls between the spaces occupied by the family members until a glance tears them down, to create a beautiful moment when worlds collide.
That Eye, The Sky holds the hallmarks of young writers. The book shows an early Winton vision of small-town Western Australia. He explores how sudden disability can impact families and how people choose to live their lives outside the mainstream Australian society of the time. It has elements that would later show up in Cloudstreet five years later: suggestions of the paranormal, or surnames which are also food-stuffs. Roxburgh and Monjo’s text is often over-stuffed with unnecessary exposition and some characters exist only as aspects of the plot, as a sort of actorly Chekhov’s gun. In the latter half, characters are doubled in a way which jars with the work which came before.
Champion exposes these weaknesses, and more. The first scene is near inaudible in the service of Cobham’s set. As is too regularly the case with actors in their 20s playing children, you can never quite be sure if the actor is pitching their performance down, or whether they are suggesting that the character is struggling to keep up with their peers. While the actors hold themselves with bodily awareness, their voices can sway too far into emoting. And That Eye, The Sky feels long – much longer than its 100 minutes – to the point that by the time the production had ended I had forgotten my excitement at the live chicken which had been on stage not two hours earlier.
Monjo and Roxburgh’s adaptation was staged four years before Monjo, with Nick Enright, adapted Cloudstreet for Company B (with Champion as choreographer) in a production now cemented in Australian theatrical legend. Much of the publicity surrounding this production notes that this is the first professional production of That Eye, The Sky since its debut season. And while it’s true that many good Australian plays are never revived, it is also true that sometimes plays they don’t need to be revisited. That Eye, The Sky doesn’t hold the same cultural power as Cloudstreet, as book or play. Any new retelling will need to do a lot more than this production to hold its audience.
When Champion finds her way within the work, it is frequently beautiful. As it’s largely plotless and primarily concerned with character, an audience member will mainly walk away with memories of Champion and Cobham’s mise en scene. Champion’s eye for the physical creates interesting choices, and shows the beginning of an exciting vocabulary for a text-based theatre that is centred on the body. It would be interesting to see what she could do with a stronger play. The physical vocabulary exposes Champion’s inexperience in directing for the voice and the weaknesses of the play. A stronger text, however, may well expose her strengths.
Jane Howard is a freelance arts journalist, critic and researcher. She is a contributing editor at Kill Your Darlings, where her work has been shortlisted for both the SA Media Awards and the SA Press Club Awards, and is a regular contributor to Guardian Australia.
That Eye, The Sky, a stage adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel by Justin Monjo and Richard Roxburgh, directed by Kate Champion. Set and lighting design by Geoff Cobham, design assistant Wendy Todd, composer Alan John, sound designer Andrew Howard, improvisation trainers Martin Hughes and Nikki Souvertjis. With Bill Allert, Elena Carapetis, Kate Cheel, Ezra Juanta, Michelle Nightingale, Christopher Pitman and Rory Walker. Dustan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, for State Theatre Company South Australia, until September 16. Bookings.
Audio description: September 11, 6:30 pm, September 15, 2pm
Captioned performance: September 12, 6.30pm