Inescapably brooding adaptation of Winton’s novel
By Leeor Adar
From the moment the audience is silent, Matthew Lutton’s reincarnation of Tim Winton’s classic, Cloudstreet, begins to play out like a sombre funeral procession. The work takes a very far turn from the warmth that is conveyed even through the darkest moments of Winton’s novel, becoming laden with the density of the pooling grief of the First Nation girls whose souls drown the house. Lutton makes this clear from the outset: Cloudstreet’s living residents are living on haunted land, and here, Lutton takes a fist-full of Winton’s Western Australian earth and presents it to the audience through a new, more enlightened lens.
Cloudstreet tells the tale of two battler Australian families after World War II who find themselves sharing a large house on Cloudstreet, Perth. The house is full of tragic history and is itself a character breathing in the background of the families’ lives. The house is a witness as it brings them together in a maelstrom of fortune and tragedy. Through the magic realism employed in Winton’s writing, Cloudstreet has become one of Australia’s most beloved works.
What Lutton has achieved is specific to the times: this work addresses the racial diversity of the Australian story, and it charges the work from the choice of casting through to the addition of Noongar language in the script. The ambition here is clear, and it is served as a vehicle to bring Cloudstreet into a conversation of today. Throughout the production, the Indigenous Australian characters narrate events and connect to the new residents of the home, creating a fresh pathway into what has been a forgotten storyline in the great Australian work. With so much promise in this crucial retelling, my appreciation for the production sadly leaps off the page into disappointment. Lutton’s usually electric style missed its mark in what is one of the most anticipated shows of the Malthouse season.
The performances are mostly bloodless, and the lack of vocal modulation led to excessive shouting in unnecessary moments. This is exacted by most characters, and particularly by the usually brilliant Alison Whyte. Whyte’s turn as Oriel exceeds in the brashness of the character, and Natasha Herbert’s Dolly Pickles is so brazen and gargantuan it borders on slapstick-hideous. Herbert however redeems herself in the shift towards the character’s grief later on. This contrasts with the performances of Bert LaBonté’s Sam Pickles and Greg Stone’s Lester Lamb.
LaBonté delivers some of the few moments of low-key humour and Stone’s exuberance is a welcome energy in this production. Another exception is Benjamin Oakes as Fish Lamb – an incredibly likable character who extracts a warmth and care from the audience. Brenna Harding’s intensely bitter Rosie Pickles is strong and driven, and one can hardly imagine her choosing the company of Guy Simon’s Quick Lamb. The portrayal of Quick Lamb is so highly-strung it is difficult to see much of the character’s humanity through what appears to be extended teenage angst.
Zoë Atkinson’s set design is grim. With a few human shapes drawn in sections, the misery of the house is etched crudely. The shifting walls and rising water through the floors are a clever addition, but hardly novel. Paul Jackson’s lighting design does not add to the gloom that settled on stage and includes unnecessary flashes of light to throw the audience into darkness. J. David Franzke’s sound design coinciding with the blackouts was another irritation, particularly the loud gunshots – in their desire to shock the audience, they only became an anticipated tension in dramatic moments. While I have enjoyed these effects in numerous Malthouse/Lutton productions, here they became an overbearing element that served little towards the story unfolding.
This is a production that has so much to say, but ultimately loses sight of the core of Winton’s work in its inescapably brooding qualities, even at the supposedly happier moments of the play. I wanted to love this two-part production, but it served as a kind of blunt-force knock to the head – the point is made, but the quality is not.
Cloudstreet is being performed at Malthouse until 16 June. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9685 5111.
Photograph: Pia Johnson