Playing at the MTC from 1 August to 9 September, Jasper Jones is a big event. Similar to Deborah Bruce’s The Distance, which played in March, this production has an expensive set, large cast completely transforms the Sumner Theatre’s stage. It’s exciting to see stage productions like this, because it reminds us that theatre in Melbourne is still able to go big when it needs to. In this case, director Sam Strong and adaptor Kate Mulvany have put on an exciting spectacle to adapt Craig Silvey’s beloved 2009 novel of the same name.
Released to rave reviews and with critics comparing it to other popular coming of age titles like To Kill a Mockingbird and Cloudstreet, Silvey’s novel has clearly struck chords with readers worldwide.
The story takes place in a sweltering mining town in Western Australia, where Charlie Bucktin (played by Nicholas Denton in this production) is a fourteen year old boy about to start his summer holidays. He has a Vietnamese friend named Jeffrey Lu (played with excellent comic timing by Harry Tseng) with whom he debates superheroes and tolerates Jeffrey’s obsession with cricket. When his dad (Ian Bliss) isn’t reading the paper, he’s mostly shut up in the study doing who-knows-what. Mum (Rachel Gordon) is highly strung but fiercely loving, and it’s pretty clear her nightly bridge sessions consist of more than a few rounds of a complicated card game.
Charlie’s comfortable life of friends, books and boredom turns upside down when Jasper Jones (Guy Simon) appears at his window and says he needs his help. Half-caste Jasper is the local scapegoat for any suspicious activity—Silvey weaves Australian xenophobia throughout the story with both Jasper and Jeffrey—and Charlie’s thrilled to be let into his exciting life. When Jones shows Charlie the hanged body of Laura Wishart (Taylor Ferguson), they agree solve the murder themselves before Jasper gets blamed.
Mulvany prioritises realism with her adaptation, using the set to create an accurate representation of Charlie’s home town. Anna Cordingley’s set and costume design is heavily detailed, from the dirt that covers the stage to the cricket pitch and the small, cramped houses. This really sets the tone for what is a pretty straightforward attempt at depicting the novel’ setting, allowing the script and performances to carry the emotional weight. Matt Scott’s lighting will occasionally plunge the play into nightmarish sequences, such as when the police assault Jasper in an attempt to get the truth about Laura out of him or when Laura’s spirit returns to haunt Charlie. As a result, it’s a suitably atmospheric production in which it’s easy to lose yourself and become swept up by its impressive stage machinery. The rotating set is a particularly nifty trick, most effective when Jasper and Charlie are stalking the neighbourhood at night, while Charlie’s narration provides internal monologue.
While Charlie is a strong character and Nicholas Denton does a good job portraying a nervous and inexperienced fourteen year old, his narration becomes a little tiresome after a while. In an attempt to transpose huge chunks of Silvey’s prose and remain faithful to the novel, Mulvany and Strong have Charlie spill out his internal monologue relating to his every experience. In a novel, this kind of device strengthens the character’s voice and he becomes our vessel into the fictional setting. In a play, however, primarily a visual medium, it can often harm our chances of becoming attached to the characters. Instead of meeting Jasper Jones and allowing Guy Simon to interpret the character as he plays him, Charlie gives us a detailed lowdown on who we’re about to meet, and the actor then needs to fit into that framework. As a result the play becomes somewhat weighed down by its narrative device, and the whole thing feels like it would have benefited from straying away from the source material, instead of sticking to it so closely.
This is the play’s fundamental problem: it feels like an adaptation of a story more suited to the form of the novel, when it should stand on its own as a piece of theatre. Luckily, this doesn’t stray away from what is ultimately an entertaining, moving and captivating play with dedicated performances and an impressive set. Jasper Jones is fast becoming an iconic Australian story, and this production is a fine piece of work—probably the first of many adaptations in the years to come.