Another triumph of adaptation, this fully realised take on a modern Australian classic is inter-generationally good theatre
Publicists are quick to label something an instant classic, but in reality they don’t exist; the best you can hope for is positive word-of-mouth that gradually solidifies. This was true for Tim Winton’s novel Cloudstreet and it’s true for Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones. And if the latter is more intimate in scope – less shambolic and encompassing – than the former, it’s also tighter and more focused.
The story has a riveting opening, and Kate Mulvany’s persuasive adaptation makes the most of it. Teenager Charlie Bucktin (Nicholas Denton) is woken in the middle of the night by Jasper Jones (Guy Simon), who takes him deep into the bush to share a shocking secret. A young girl, Laura Wishart (Taylor Ferguson), hangs from a tree, her bruised face suggesting a violent death. Jasper is the town’s scapegoat and knows he’ll be blamed, so he enlists Charlie in the search for the killer.
Charlie’s search is somewhat waylaid by the everyday distractions of life in a small country town, from the bullying of his best friend Jeffrey (Harry Tseng), and the cryptic behaviour of his mother (Rachel Gordon) to the furtive flirtations of Laura’s sister Eliza (also played by Ferguson). Jasper Jones doesn’t even reappear throughout of the entirety of the first act, himself waylaid by the brutality of the local police.
The focus of the boys’ suspicion is Mad Jack Lionel (Hayden Spencer), the local eccentric who never leaves his rusty house, and is clearly going to develop into the Boo Radley of this story. In fact, the overt references to works like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn tend to simplify and diminish, rather than deepen and enrich, this play. It’s as if we can’t quite forge our own narrative without pegging it to foreign, in this case American, tropes.
It’s also strange that, for much of the running time, Charlie and Eliza – the latter especially, given that her sister is missing, presumed dead – spend much of their time happily ensconced in a budding romance, seemingly oblivious to the dark forces around them, forces that both threaten and implicate them. This is less like teenage displacement, and more like callousness.
This flouting of the realities of psychology could be grievous if so much else in this production weren’t so gorgeous and entertaining. The performances, notably by the four young actors, are consistently delightful. Denton’s Charlie is goofy and gangly and utterly winning, and Simon’s Jasper has the audience leaning in to hug him. Gordon teases out the mystery of Mrs Bucktin in the first act but eventually lets the weariness and disgust overwhelm her in the second. She’s very good, but no performance falters, and the doubling is often hilarious.
Anna Cordingly’s design is magnificent, a revolve of country houses, flower beds and overgrown pear trees that smacks of authenticity and looks breathtaking under Matt Scott’s stunning lighting design. Sam Strong’s direction is all class: effortlessly shifting tone; effortlessly utilising the full scope of the stage; effortlessly teasing out dynamic, rich performances. If Sydney’s Belvoir production earlier in the year, or Perth’s Barking Gecko production of 2014, were anywhere near as good as this, they’d have been fine indeed.
Stage adaptation of canonical Australian literature isn’t new, but we’ve seen it work so well it’s surprising we don’t see more of it. Anyone who caught Neil Armfield’s Cloudstreet or his more recent Secret River will know what to expect with Jasper Jones, but this production’s true antecedent is Dorothy Hewitt. She put the rambunctious hopes and disappointments of Australian life centre stage, and her ghost lurks in the corners of this beautiful, generous production. Get a seat, because it’s bound to be a hit.
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