Tim Winton is a great novelist. I’m drawn into the myriad of characters, their inner conflicts, flawed tactics, troubled relationships, disappointments, hopes and dreams. I love his landscapes, the barren and faded locations, past care and struggling for survival. With his artful narrator’s voice capturing the psychology and turmoil of his character’s choices blended with his Australianness and an understanding of our culture and its complications- Winton one of our finest living novelists.
What Tim Winton is not is a playwright.
‘Cloudstreet’ was a triumph but it was a clever team of other writers and creatives who brought Winton’s novel to life. ‘Signs of Life’ is showing at the Sydney Opera House and is a collaboration between W.A's Black Swan State Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company. It is Winton’s second writing specifically for the theatre and it feels distinctly incomplete. You can dress it up, you can punch out the energy but there is no disputing that ‘Signs of Life’ is a failed experiment for a gifted novelist trying to make a transition into playwriting. Whilst ‘Dirt Music’ may have been his inspiration, the play itself was a vignette that misses the tension and rhythm of the book.
The art of writing a play is a challenge I can hardly imagine ever mastering and that is why I have such respect for those who do it so well. The effective choice of language and action in creating powerful relationships, characters, subtext, backstory, imagery, tension and then manipulating space, time, mood…and then add people we recognise or issues that resonate- the melting pot of skill is a phenomenal ask and I don’t begin to say that I could do it. I am not a playwright. Some would argue I can’t write at all but I can recognise when the core of the problem is in the writing and thus we have ‘Signs of Life’.
I was bored. Firstly, Georgie’s story feels irrelevant. Let’s acknowledge that when your protagonist doesn’t engage in her own story, you’ve got problems. Heather Mitchell was fine. She emoted when she needed to, her energy didn’t falter. She tried to breathe some life into a role that was underwritten and lacklustre. As for the ghost of her dead husband Lu (George Shevtsov), what was Winton thinking? It was a role that would have been much better implied than enacted. It felt forced and contrived, much like the monologues of Georgie’s character. What works well in the novel- the slow reveal of the psychological voice, unpacking the mind’s conversation, was like trying to speak gibberish on stage. It didn’t work. We didn’t care. I feel like there’s no subtext in this play. It’s missing the tension in the space between words, between conversations, in the silence of what’s left unsaid or in the implication of those words spoken and then it doesn’t know how to resolve itself when everything is on the table.
And so what are we left with? Probably the most interesting character for us was Bender (Aaron Pedersen) whose stories towards the end of the play, of his father and his relationship with the river were the actual moments when the play showed signs of life, literally. We saw the young boy hiding from his fate at the Mission, a moment of connection with the land and finally the stakes were raised. Pedersen was certainly the strongest on stage and maybe it was because his character had more meat on the bones and perhaps it gave him more of a chance to showcase his skills but he was the pick of the cast.
Pauline Whyman’s Mona was a tough role and I don’t know whether I believed the complexity Winton had written for her- there were just too many overt issues crammed into a limited role that required too much running off stage and banging fists on head. Refer to my notes above on lack of subtext for clarity here. That could also be a directorial issue- I am not familiar with Kate Cherry’s work but given the thinness of the script, I don’t know what she could have done with it to make it better.
Zoe Atkinson’s design was interesting and certainly set the landscape to create the imagery of desolation. But whilst the set was beautiful in design, it still felt linear in action and I wonder if playing with levels could have given it more depth. Ben Collins' sound composition really enhanced the environment of abandonment and emptiness and was a thoughtful element in trying to mirror the intentions and location of the play.
‘Signs of Life’ lacks substance. The first hour in this 80 minute show stalls in action and engagement and then ends as abruptly, just when we feel it’s going somewhere. As a play, it doesn’t work and you’re likely to forget the whole thing by breakfast the next morning.
Winton’s transition to playwright is a long, long road to drive and feels like it’s using the wrong petrol in the tank. Here’s hoping that this great writer has better theatrical offerings in the future.