“It was strange for an odd little book like this to be the first thing of mine [adapted for the stage],” says Tim Winton, one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers.
We’re talking about his 1986 novel That Eye, The Sky – one of his earliest works – which acclaimed actor Richard Roxburgh (Rake, The Present) and screenwriter Justin Monjo (Cloudstreet) stage-adapted in 1994. Almost 25 years later the State Theatre Company is taking it on.
Morton “Ort” Flack is a 12-year-old from country Western Australia struggling to navigate life after his father is seriously injured in a car accident.
“It was me as a very young adult revisiting some of the stuff that happened to me as a child,” says Winton of writing That Eye, The Sky at 25. “My father was a traffic cop and he was in a terrible accident when I was five. He was hit by a drunk driver on a motorbike and put through a brick wall. His life was saved by an emergency tracheotomy on the street.
“We went from being this confident family with a big, strapping father … and then suddenly it was all just hanging by a thread.”
Winton’s experiences bleed into Ort’s. “It’s really a story about wonder,” he says. “The kid is looking up at the sky trying to make sense of the world.
“When you get away from the city and see particularly what the Australian sky looks like, it’s kaleidoscopic,” Winton says. “Ort’s having his own cosmic thoughts. He feels like the sky’s looking back, that he means something.”
Thinking back to his own childhood, Winton says, “That was definitely my experience, to feel something nurturing in the natural world … We don’t see ourselves as part of nature anymore; we see ourselves as the players and the natural world is just the set.”
Kate Champion brings her directorial eye to this more-than-30-year-old story. The founding artistic director of dance-theatre company Force Majeure (from which she resigned in 2014) also choreographed a stage adaptation of Winton’s Cloudstreet at Sydney’s Belvoir in 2001.
“There’s a rupturing of the status quo by a cataclysmic event that’s so unpredicted,” Champion says of That Eye, The Sky. “People get frustrated that [Winton] doesn’t have tied-up, clear meanings and neat endings. But I agree with [him] because life’s not like that.”
The novel unfolds through Ort’s eyes. At the time, Winton wrestled with pressure to “write proper”. “I decided to blow all that off and just go balls-to-the-wall vernacular, let this kid speak in his own voice and bugger the consequences,” he recalls. “It was me fully embracing my place, my time, my language and my version of white-trash culture, I suppose.”
Translating it to the stage is a balancing act. “You can’t do a whole play from one internal voice,” Champion says. “It’s finding that balance between the action and the dialogue and then retaining that beautiful viewpoint of the boy,” where a lot of its humour is rooted.
In the wake of Ort’s father’s accident a stranger arrives, challenging the family’s stance on faith. “There are questions of faith even in the staunchest non-believers, who often look for signs of it in extreme circumstances,” says Champion. “We’re always searching for connection,” Winton adds, “and family and faith are two related forms of [that] search. Regardless of how we feel we’re hard-wired for them.”
Set designer Geoff Cobham – who co-established Force Majeure with Champion – captures the middle ground between the suburbs and the outback. “There’s more space, there’s more sense of the sky and often random things left around to rot,” Champion says. “We wanted to go more elemental and make sure the landscape was always incorporated.” Cobham has “not-too-realistically” represented a house, without actually building one.
What does get realistic representation is Ort’s pet chook, Errol. “I decided to go with a real one,” Champion tells us on the day a trio of real-life chickens – who will share the role – first enter the rehearsal room.
Composer Alan John’s harmonium sits central to the soundtrack. “It makes a very beautiful, ethereal-like sound that also has a sense of foreboding to it,” Champion says. “The atmosphere will bleed into the music almost so you don’t know where the line between the two is.”
Winton isn’t often hands on with those adapting his works (though he did collaborate on the recently released film Breath and mini series Cloudstreet). He’s happy for Champion to hold the reins. “I’ll just show up like another punter … except I won’t have to pay for my ticket.”
That Eye, The Sky runs from August 24 to September 16 at the Dunstan Playhouse. Tickets are available online.