Jasper Jones was the second novel of Western Australian writer Craig Silvey, published in 2009. Often referred to as an Australian equivalent of Harper Lee’s 1960 masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s received many accolades including both book of the year and literary fiction book of the year at the Australian Book Industry Awards. It was later adapted for the stage by Kate Mulvany and presented for the first time in 2014 at Perth’s State Theatre in a production by Barking Gecko Theatre Company. A film adaptation, under the direction of Rachel Perkins and starring Toni Collette and Hugo Weaving, is on the way.
In January of last year, Jasper Jones arrived at Belvoir in a production directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, which was both a popular and critical success. And in 2017, it’s returned to Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre for a limited season before embarking on a tour to Wollongong and Newcastle.
This coming-of-age tale takes place in the fictional WA town of Corrigan. It’s 1965 and the academically-inclined 14-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Tom Conroy) aspires to write the Great Australian Novel. But, late on a summer evening, Charlie is disturbed by Jasper Jones (Guy Simon), an Indigenous teenager, persistently knocking at the window of his sleep-out. Jasper has found a white girl, Laura Wishart, dead near a dam. Jasper is devastated but also terrified, acutely aware of the inevitability that he will be blamed for Laura’s demise (at the outset, we’re told explicitly Jones is “the first to be blamed for everything” in Corrigan). So, he enlists Charlie’s help to hide the body and, later, to ensure blame falls in the direction of the guilty culprit who, he believes, is the enigmatic Mad Jack Lionel (Steve Le Marquand). The truth is ultimately revealed, but that encompasses so much more coming to light than Jasper had anticipated.
Events unfold with a social and political backdrop that includes a major mining boom in WA, the waging of the Vietnam War, and the tail end of the administration of the child removal policy that saw Aboriginal children of mixed descent forcibly separated from their families. While this was the era in which Indigenous Australians were finally given the right to vote, attitudes towards the Aboriginal population in communities continued to be far from evolved, and that’s reflected accurately in Jasper Jones. And through the eyes of Charlie’s best friend of Vietnamese heritage, Jeffrey Lu (Charles Wu), we have a glimpse into the racism to which recent immigrants were subjected. Corrigan is a microcosm of a very ugly side of 20th century Australia.
On top of this, there’s a central theme woven through Jasper Jones about the importance of truth telling. That theme is never more front and centre than in the second act, when Charlie tells the audience how all of the characters in the best books he’s read have been stuck between good and bad. In an affecting speech, he says, “They’re stuck between right and wrong. But it’s the truly good people that can tell the difference. And so it’s a truly good person that can admit fault and say, ‘Sorry’.” His words powerfully speak to the realities of human behaviour, and the crucial need for society, as a whole, to stand up and admit when it’s wronged members of its community.
This is a beautifully written piece. Conversational exchanges have been crafted with the utmost care, with the effect that each of these is wonderfully naturalistic. Charlie is both a player and the narrator, and his transitions from one role to the other never interfere with the fluency of the narrative, each monologue delivered to audience precisely placed to advance or expose the plot. And while deeply sober themes lie at the heart of the text, it’s laced with a wonderfully warm dose of humour to give audiences necessary relief from the darker moments.
As the naïve but kind-hearted Charlie, Conroy is outstanding. He’s engaging from the outset and ensures his audience becomes invested in Charlie’s journey. Every word he utters and every gesture makes us believe he’s 14-years-old. In the title role, Simon is excellent. He’s convincing as a juvenile delinquent more than capable of intimidating Corrigin townsfolk, but from the very start, is also enormously sympathetic, demonstrably a teenager whose fortunes are an accumulation of events in a hard-lived young life – a life that has never known any real advantage.
Wu is delightful as Charlie’s cricket-obsessed best friend, funny and ungainly and loyal. But even so, Jeffrey experiences his fair share of white-hot racism and Wu’s bittersweet performance shows us how much the immigrant must just accept to get by.
As Corrigan’s very own Boo Radley, Le Marquand is a strong presence and makes the most of the limited time Mad Jack Lionel has on stage. He’s equally considered as Charlie’s father, a somewhat silent school teacher, whose marriage to Charlie’s mother (Kate Box) has become totally dysfunctional since the couple’s loss of a stillborn daughter. Box’s performance as the tough but wounded Mrs Bucktin is first rate. Somewhat of a mystery in the first act, the character has one significant moment of outpouring early on in the second, and Box’s performance ensures the impact of that scene is as significant as it should be. And as Eliza Wishart, the dead Laura’s younger sister, Matilda Ridgway is ideally cast as the inconspicuous but endearing 14-year-old, who finds herself the object of Charlie’s affection.
Director Anne-Louise Sarks has delivered a production that’s not only defined by uniformly excellent performances, but is well staged and perfectly paced. Scene transitions are consistently fluid and accompanied by an atmospheric soundtrack by Steve Toulmin, which is evocative and effectively enhances the dialogue and events depicted.
Jasper Jones has the potential to become a modern-day stage classic. The text is magnificent, the themes timeless, and when performed in a production of this calibre, is a thoroughly entertaining theatrical piece that’s likely to remind all of its audience members of not just how dark our recent history is, but also of the important work to progress us further that lies ahead. To use the words of Harper Lee, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” More than 50 years later, Jasper Jones poignantly champions the same message.
JASPER JONES – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Belvoir Street Theatre (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Dates: Now until 19 February, 2017
Times: Tuesday & Wednesday 6.30pm, Thursday & Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 5pm
Prices: Full price $72, Subscriber Discount Rate $67, Seniors/Industry/Groups (10 or more): $62, Concession $49, 30-Down $47, Student Saver $37
After its run at Belvoir, Jasper Jones will also tour to the following venues:
Merrigong Theatre Company
22 – 25 February, 2017
Civic Theatre Newcastle
1 – 4 March, 2017