How To Transform Australia's Most Beloved Stories For The Stage

4 May 2019 | 11:05 am | Maxim Boon

Matthew Lutton and Sam Strong, the directors of 'Cloudstreet' and 'Storm Boy' respectively, tell Maxim Boon about what it takes to transport a literary classic to the stage.

Australian theatre boasts a proud pedigree of adaptations of our homegrown literary masterworks, transporting much-loved Aussie classics from the page to the stage. Two of Australia’s most celebrated directors – Malthouse Theatre Artistic Director Matthew Lutton and the outgoing head of Queensland Theatre Sam Strong – are experts in this regard. Building on the success of previous novel adaptations, each is helming upcoming productions that speak to the resourcefulness and reverence needed when transforming a book into a play.

Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet holds a position within Australian fiction that few other titles do. Since its publication in 1991, it has consistently remained a frontrunner in polls of the nation’s most beloved page-turners. With a story spanning more than two decades, it tells the tale of the Lambs and the Pickles, two-working class families living under the same roof. Over the years, their fates become inexorably bound, and through tragedy and triumph, these two very different tribes connect in ways that reach beyond culture, society, spirituality or circumstance.

Winton’s story has been reimagined as a TV series, a radio serial and even an opera, but Lutton’s new production will feature one of the first retellings that emerged after the novel, Nick Enright and Justin Monjo’s stage iteration, last seen in Melbourne 20 years ago. 

Staging Cloudstreet has been in Lutton’s sights for some time, which will happen at Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre from 6 May. “It’s the scale of this story that I’m drawn to – that by whatever form you tell it, you end up living the lives of these characters. 

“One aspect of Cloudstreet that I’m very interested in is its combination of honesty – this fantastically observed picture of Australian life – and the supernatural. That’s where a lot of the interpretation can occur, in how you express what you might call beyond reality, where you dip into a dream or the unconscious and give the storytelling over to a more internal world.”

One of the defining features of this version of Cloudstreet is its epic length, clocking in at more than four hours. Lutton says the unusually ample running time is essential to the integrity of the storytelling. “It’s rare to encounter a story where you’re watching and experiencing people on stage who take time to learn about themselves and the consequences of their actions, and that you feel you have that time with them.”

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Of course, such marathon experiences are nothing new. Indeed, one of the most hotly anticipated shows to ever play in Melbourne, Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, currently in residence at the Princess Theatre, runs for over five hours. Nonetheless, durational productions can prove intimidating, even for experienced theatregoers. 

However, Lutton points to the popular emergence of TV binge-watching as an indication that audiences, now more than ever, have the stamina to really engage with a production of this size. “I think there’s definitely an appetite for this sort of long-form work, in the same way as television makers have capitalised on so well in the past few years.

“It’s created this deep investment in the evolution of characters and plots, and what’s possible over a longer period of time. And that kind of long duration storytelling is absolutely the right form for Cloudstreet. I certainly feel that it’s possible for stories to be told in a way that’s too long. But there’s a remarkable thing in Cloudstreet, which happens in stories that cover a long period but also have a large span of time to exist in. When you eventually arrive in the last act, and characters are reflecting and responding to events that happened for them 20 years earlier, there’s a real sense of journeying with these people, of knowing them and understanding what they’ve been through, of what has made them who they are and brought them to this realisation.”

“I think there’s definitely an appetite for this sort of long-form work."

Sam Strong’s latest foray into literary adaptations shares much in common with his hugely successful 2016 production of Kate Mulvany’s iteration of Jasper Jones, after the award-winning novel by Craig Silvey. Set in a small Western Australian town in the 1960s, that show charted the unlikely friendship between two teenage boys, one white the other Indigenous, as they search for a murderer in their rural community. 

Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy also explores the life of a boy existing on the fringes of society. Much like the young protagonists of Jasper Jones, Storm Boy explores an unexpectedly enriching companionship, in this instance, with an orphaned pelican named Mr Percival. Strong will direct this new production, coming to the Southbank Theatre from 17 Jun, adapted for the stage by Tom Holloway.

“The beauty of these types of coming-of-age stories is that they manage to speak across time and across generations,” Strong says. “They can be set in a very specific time and place, and yet they have this universality that anyone can connect with, whether that’s the idea of entering adulthood or the journey from innocence to experience; these are stories that we all recognise as sharing something with our own lives.”

Storm Boy

Transmuting the imaginary, ephemeral essence of a novel into the physical reality of a stage production is a task that Strong finds particularly exciting. “I think what attracts me to these kinds of adapted works is that they put front and centre the challenge of what you can only do in a theatre, the opportunities that only theatre can offer.” 

This will be no mean feat where Storm Boy is concerned, with the action set amongst the exposed dunes on the rugged, desolate coastline of the Southern Ocean. “This is a story about loneliness and isolation, so one of the key challenges of Storm Boy is answering the question of how we put that landscape on stage? How can we create a world where Storm Boy – and all the characters for that matter – can feel small and remote, without losing a sense of intimacy in the interactions between characters? 

“The art of achieving that is in finding that balance between the literal and the poetic. I think what we’ve found in this production is a unique way of creating that thickness of scale that also supports the focus of the storytelling.”