Faithful to Winton’s signature aesthetic, the production has an unashamed Australian earthiness, enriched with colloquial language and infused with self-deprecating humour.
The play opens with 12-year-old Ort (Tim Overton) addressing the audience from a balcony. He tells us about his family and his pet chook Errol. He tells us about the sky, which he reckons is a big blue eye, watching over everyone.
Behind a thin veil that covers the front of the stage, the family can be seen waving off Ort’s father Sam (Bill Allert). The peaceful scene is dramatically shattered by the sound of a car crash. Fractured light smacks against the protective veil that is drawn up and back to form a shimmering cloud of light above the family house. A cloud that only Ort sees.
Later on, the cloud becomes a symbol of hope for Ort, a protective presence that watches over him as his life is turned upside down.
His father has barely survived the crash. He is returned to the house in a semi-comatose state and Ort must help to look after him. While the cloud keeps an eye on Ort, Ort keeps an eye on his worn-out mother, Alice (Elena Carapetis), his stroppy teenage sister, Tegwyn (Kate Cheel) and his grandmother, lost in her own cloud of dementia. But things start to change with the arrival of Henry Warburton (Christopher Pitman), an evangelical preacher who says he wants to help.
There are strong performances from the entire cast, particularly Overton and Cheel, who both effortlessly manage the difficult task of portraying teenagers.
The real jewel in the crown, however, is Geoff Cobham’s spectacular set-design. The family home is literally down-to-earth — it’s essentially a huge mound of ‘dirt’ with some tyres, pallets and grimy mattresses balanced on top of it — yet clever use of lighting gives it various tones of warmth, mystery and fun. And what a stroke of genius to have a pool of water at the front of the stage extending into the audience and drawing them into some of the more intimate moments of the play (including the beautifully underplayed conversation between Ort and his friend Fat Cherry (Ezra Juanta) as they float down-river on a car bonnet).
The play does lose pace towards the end, largely due to the script. Writers Richard Roxburgh (star of Rake) and Justin Monjo (who also adapted Cloudstreet) have been faithful to the original novel, but braver cutting might have kept the story rolling.
Winton is famously against the idea of closure in fiction. He has described it as “a sort of confection… a construct that people wrestle onto the messiness of life”, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s no satisfying denouement here. Ort’s family are broken and they remain broken but strangely, this isn’t depressing. Instead it seems to mirror the ups and downs of life we all experience and remind us of our amazing ability to carry on, however small our ray of hope, however big our questions.
State Theatre Company’s That Eye, The Sky is showing at Dunstan Playhouse until September 16.
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