Few people get to experience the surreality of sitting in a darkened theatre watching their own imagination come into being. It’s an experience author Craig Silvey has been grappling with a lot lately. MTC’s stage adaptation of his novel Jasper Jones hits townafter two previous productions in Perth and Sydney, and he still isn’t used to the uncanny sensations evoked.
“That initial opening night in Perth was the most profoundly moving experience. But it was also really odd, like being inside this strange dream. I know these characters so intimately, they’re a part of me, so to see it acted out in front of me was hard to describe. It’s been really emotional, actually.”
Silvey's novel – which filters narratives like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn through a distinctly Australian lens – is the story of a young man on the precipice of adulthood drawn unwittingly into the predicament of a local Aboriginal boy. John Sheedy, of Perth-based company Barking Gecko, was the first to realise its potential for the stage, and commissioned Kate Mulvany to adapt it.
Mulvany has form in adaptation, having brought the children’s picture book Masquerade to the Melbourne stage recently, and Silvey describes her as “eminently qualified. I think she’s a genius.” The sense that Silvey had to pass his baby on to her was important for both of them. “The book had been in the public domain for a long time by then, and I felt this new work for the stage had to be hers as much as mine.”
Certainly, stage adaptations of classic Australian novels aren’t new. The clear precedent in this case is Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, adapted by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo and directed by Neil Armfield back in 1998. Silvey saw that production in Fremantle and remembers it fondly. “I’ll never forget when the theatre opened up and Fish Lamb jumped into the Fremantle harbour. It blew me away.”
It isn’t hard to see the same happening for Jasper Jones’saudiences, given the pedigree of the material and the artists involved. “I’ve always had faith in a stage version of my novel. It broadens the story, and allows us to see the action from other perspectives. Besides, theatre itself can promote a keener emotional response. It’s one thing to read about a boy witnessing a horrifying event, it’s something else to witness a boy witnessing it. Only theatre can do that.”