Tim Winton’s Dirt Music on stage as Signs of Life.

Tim Winton’s Dirt Music on stage as Signs of Life.

Tim Winton is becoming the new David Williamson of Australian theatre. Adaptations of his novels are best sellers on the stage. First there was Cloudstreet, adapted by Nick Enright, then Rising Water last year, and in 2012 Black Swan Theatre Company’s production of Signs of Life, touring Western Australia before it arrives at the Sydney Opera House in November. Constantine Costi speaks to the Director Kate Cherry.

Signs of Life, set in a desiccated, mysterious and uncertain rural landscape, is not without a sense of irreverence and humour.

“One of the things I particularly love about Tim’s work is that one minute it’s sacred, then the next it’s profane. That he goes into the deep, the dark, and the unknown. But later he laughs and pokes fun at it and ourselves, and basically tells fart jokes,” Kate Cherry explains. (Cherry adds there are no fart jokes in Signs of Life.)

Rather, the play is infused with a sense of magic realism and humour to lighten an atmosphere that is psychological, desperate and dying.  Winton, the great Australian writer of modern times, launches Georgie Jutland, from his novel Dirt Music, into a new world. Cherry’s direction frames Georgie’s journey as a search for human connection and hope.

“Georgie (played by Helen Morse) is experiencing intense loneliness in a dried up landscape. She comes to terms with having strangers arrive at her doorstep late at night, and they come from a very different world. It later becomes clear that Georgie and her visitors have a great deal in common,” Cherry says.

The strangers are Bender (Tom E. Lewis) and Mona (Pauline Whyman), an indigenous brother and sister. They emerge from the night, signalling their arrival with the sounds of arguing voices, car doors slamming and weeping.

They are out of petrol and have been stranded in their car for days. Pauline is crying behind the glass of the passenger’s seat. Middle class Georgie is eventually confronted with the brutal reality of Bender’s and Mona’s lives. They were children of the Stolen Generation.

Cherry tackled this pressing and difficult part of Australia’s history with a sensitive and empathetic approach. She explains that actress Pauline Whyman is a member of the Stolen Generation.

“The indigenous people who are on stage are part of that generation. Tom Lewis and Pauline are a living embodiment of people who have gone on to become incredible artists in very difficult times for their particular culture. And it was part of Pauline’s childhood and therefore it is part of the ongoing experience of bringing this production to life.”

Winton was also an active presence in the rehearsal room and sought to deal with indigenous issues in a collaborative way.

“Tim’s been very attuned to anything the actors have to say, particularly the indigenous actors. He always strives for authenticity. And it seems to me one of the things that makes him such a brilliant Australian writer is that he mythologises our authentic experiences,” says Cherry

Social issues and environmental degradation seem inherently political themes. Cherry handles them gently without a pointed political bent.

“Artists want to ask fundamental human questions. They want to meet the human experience with compassion and ask the tough questions of themselves and others. Tim’s work is never dogmatic. He can put forward many different points of view; many different ways of understanding this beautiful country of ours.”

“There’s never a sense that he wants the audience to go away with one point of view. Signs of Life comes across as deeply moving piece about four people who find a way to meet each other in human terms by speaking to one another from their hearts. That’s deeper and more important than anything political,” she says.

Cherry and Helen Morse, who stars as Georgie, have a long history of staggering work together including The Woman in the Window (MTC), The Breath of Life(Hit Productions) and The Year of Magical Thinking (Black Swan).

“Helen is an amazing actress who’s breathtaking in Signs of Life. She’s quite extraordinary.”

Signs of Life opened in Albany, and will embark on a tour of regional Western Australia before playing in Perth and in November the Sydney Opera House. Cherry says that despite this sprawling tour, every Australian will understand and care about this story.

“The themes of the play are universal. Questions of loneliness, alienation, the need to communicate with the other in order to understand ourselves better, the human desire to belong, yet also our desire to navigate unknown places. That’s what makes Tim such an important writer. His work transcends class or region. He finds his way into the hearts of many Australians by portraying us truthfully.”

In the desolate world of the play, where the past, a dead thing, shapes the dried out and seemingly hopeless present, where are the signs of life in Signs of Life?

“We can be in a drought, or on the cusp of losing the land, and yet there’s life that still runs through it. And when you most feel a sense of loss and isolation, a breeze can go past, and you can remember that you are alive. There’s the inherent beauty and excitement of life in that.” 

Images of the WA cast (from top): Tom E. Lewis, Helen Morse and Pauline Whyman; Helen Morse and George Shevtsov, & Tom E. Lewis. Photographer: Garry Ferugson

Originally published in the July / August 2012 edition of Stage Whispers.

The Sydney Theatre Company season, with Heather Mitchell and Aaron Pedersen, plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, from November 2 - December 22, 2012.

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