Bill Allert (Sam) and Elena Carapetis (Alice) in That Eye, The Sky. Photo by Chris Herzfeld.
There is no doubt Tim Winton is an individual, coruscating voice in the Australian literary landscape, nor that Kate Champion’s is a skilled teaser-outer-er of talent as a director and choreographer but there is something a bit squiffy about State Theatre Company of South Australia’s That Eye, the Sky.
As an audience we first meet Ort Flack, played by Tim Overton in a monologue from a Juliet balcony in Adelaide’s Festival Centre’s Dunston Playhouse. A prelude to the action. Ort is outspoken, naïve, buffeted by life, with the kind of tact only a person on the brink of puberty devoid of crushing life experiences can muster. In this central premise lies the play’s crux.
From this point on we are exposed to each of the Flack family members as victims of circumstance; informed through dialogue and nuanced movement about their various plights and aspirations. An hour and forty minutes no interval stuffed full of goings-on and busy-work, human labour marking the passage of time.
We meet worn, resilient Alice Flack, Ort’s mum, played by Elena Carapetis, she’s down-to-earth, unbroken by extraordinary circumstance; her daughter Tegwyn (Kate Cheel) and notably, Alice’s husband and Ort and Tegwyn’s dad; inert, non-recovering Sam Flack is played by Bill Allert. Allert gives an extraordinary performance as a literal body in space, one exempt from his own volition, who must be tended, moved, cared for and included. A stranger also joins their midst, a preacher, Henry Warburton, played by Christopher Pitman, who is slow to reveal himself, as the Flack life continues on around him.
Observations of the human condition pepper the piece, at one point Alice, Ort’s mum says ‘Survival is what you do for yourself, you could eat someone if it meant you were going to survive. Healing is what you do for someone else.’
That Eye, the Sky could be a story of gentle, emotional devastation, director Kate Champion and cast have created a filmic tribute to the 80s book of the same name. We’re watching a family, in the words of the preacher, Henry Warburton, ‘learning to live with nothing’ and as an audience, it feels as though there has been considerable effort excerpted to take us unusual places; the aftermath of love and loss, non- suicidal self-injury via Tegwyn with a cigarette on her 16-year old flesh, the preacher has at least one identifiable mental disorder manifesting as a verbal tic; the Flack’s are socially isolated, ridiculed by their small, local community and just for good measure, it’s debatable if Ort has the appropriate intellectual elasticity to learn all he should, as he enters senior school. Throughout this display of tangled humanity it still feels as though little is actually being said.
Bill Allert (Sam) and Tim Overton (Ort) in That Eye, The Sky. Photo by Chris Herzfeld.
The set is an extravagance, a testament to adding and belittling, so much is present on stage that the textures of the imagined landscape dwarfs the players within it.
There is a cloud that hangs above Ort’s family home, a literal eye in the sky; swathes of translucent fabric, wonderfully lit. In a scene near the top of the show, it hangs oppressively, vibrantly blue – looking for all the world like a 44 gallon drum above the action, capturing the essence of a hot, Australian summer sky perfectly.
The set is a sooty, gravelly, layered imagining, at once a riverbank; a house interior, an operatic junk yard. Geoff Cobham’s design is intricate, poetic and charged with symbolism. The cast, to their credit, navigate through it and on it pretty well considering the constant challenges it’s surfaces represent. Behind it, a massive, metallic, quilt-like backdrop, the ultimate organic/industrial finishing touch that successfully dwarfs everything.
This incarnation of That Eye, the Sky is as much about the set’s silhouettes, reflections and shadows, as it is Ort’s story of a time in his life when the goalposts were shifting. That Eye, the Sky is a thoughtful, unfinished sentiment that exposes and then unceremoniously glosses over, many things. It is by no means a brave directorial choice by SA’s State Theatre Company, nor a particularly satisfying one.
Whether Winton knew enough as a writer early in his career to pose only answerless questions, whether the grandness of the set and styling detract from us establishing any real connection with the cast – it’s unclear.
Leaving the theatre post-show is an odd sensation; why it is over? What actually happened? Did, in fact, the story as it first appeared in 1986, need to be retold in August 2018? It feels as though we understand far more of illness, physical and otherwise, since the dark days of Australia’s mid-eighties. There’s an argument for telling a weighty tale of human sadness through the benevolent eyes of a child, but given the lack of sympathy we as an audience feel for the characters, by default or by design, is this enough?
3 ½ stars ★★★☆
That Eye, the Sky
State Theatre Company
A STAGE ADAPTATION OF TIM WINTON’S NOVEL
BY JUSTIN MONJO AND RICHARD ROXBURGH
Director Kate Champion
Set and Lighting Designer Geoff Cobham
Costume Designer Renate Nenschke
Sound Designer Andrew Howard
Bill Allert, Elena Carapetis, Kate Cheel, Ezra Juanta, Michelle Nightingale, Christopher Pitman, Tim Overton, Rory Walker.
24 August - 16 September 2018
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide