Skip to main content

Jasper Jones


Belvoir presents JASPER JONES. Based on the novel by Craig Silvey. Adapted by Kate Mulvaney. In the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 6 Jan – 7 Feb., 2016.

JASPER JONES, was written by Craig Silvey, with a young adult readership in mind in 2009, and has garnered many prizes and become a popular book – even a studied school text. I was never a fan of the book, finding it a fairly ordinarily researched novel – it is set in a country town, Corrigan, in Western Australia during the period of the Vietnam war, the summer of 1965. And, although I grew up in Sydney, not in a country town in Western Australia, but in the same time frame – I was three years older than Charlie in 1965 – I found the background research of the story poorly representing the social concerns of what I, generally,  experienced in any conscious way as part of my upbringing, in an uptight conservative Australia. And yet, annoyingly, on the other hand, the content issues of the novel, underlined by Mr Silvey, pressed many overt contemporary ‘pop’ buttons of 2009: racial, indigenous discrimination-tensions, child sexual abuse, adolescent bullying, small town violence, police criminality, suicide, unhappy marriages, alcoholism, adultery, sexual promiscuity and cricket!

I was particularly irked, as I read the novel, with Mr Silvey’s references within the context of the life of the ‘hero’ of his book, 14 year-old Charlie Bucktin’s (it seemed to be more Mr Silvey’s) aspiration of becoming a novelist as good as his literary heroes –  Mark Twain (TOM SAWYER -1878, HUCKLEBERRY FINN – 1885 ); Harper Lee (TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD -1961), and even to Truman Capote (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S – 1958, IN COLD BLOOD – 1960). For, of the last two writers, Charlie of country Corrigan in 1965 would probably not have had much knowledge of the books or even aware of them, unless the local country library was amazingly ‘in’ on the international literary zeitgeist of the period, or that there was a local ‘picture show’ to screen the films made of them in the early sixties. As no local cinema, or habit of cinema going by our hero is mentioned in the novel it all seemed a remote proposition to me. I felt it stranger that the similarly smash literary hit of that decade, and extremely paralleled in thematics in JASPER JONES, PEYTON PLACE, by Grace Metalious – 1956, was not mentioned, too. (I knew of PEYTON PLACE because of its scandalous reputation in the evening newspapers – The Daily Mirror, being my favourite sensation sheet – and that my mum had a copy, which when she was out of the house, I skimmed through!) Goodness knows what literary qualities Charlie Bucktin might have written, but I thought that Mr Silvey’s book did not have any of the depth of the literary qualities of the above referenced novels, that have made them ‘classics’, other than as a gesture of a self-conscious homage, particularly  to the Harper Lee novel. I disliked Mr Silvey’s book because I could not believe it was an Australian ‘truth’ of the contextualised period or place, it supposedly represented.

Most of all, however, the opening behaviour of Charlie and Jasper in ‘spoiling’ a crime scene by cutting down a hanging body of a friend, weighting it, and throwing it into the local dam (for all of time, it turns out) was, for me, unbelievable behaviour of any early teenager I knew of in that time (besides, it being a strange example for young adults, even in 2009, to be invited to approve of as a satisfactory solution to the dilemma of the horrendous discovery). That the psychological consequences of such an action had no seeming ramifications on our two ‘heroes’ – Charlie and Jasper – for the rest of the story seemed extremely peculiar and unlikely.

And worse, is the shallow psychological depiction of Eliza, the sister of Laura (the dead body), who knows that her sister is dead, that the body is missing, that the hanging was a desperate act of suicide as a consequence of paternal sexual abuse, revealed in a letter that she has come to possess at the self-discovered scene of the suicide. All three of these culprits of a crime after the fact, instead, pursue, non-plussed, a kind of rom-com teenage scenario, with each other, instead of experiencing any apparent emotional complications from their acts. It seemed very, very odd to me, and incredible.

If I, or my friends, had known or done such a thing – finding and then hiding a dead body – I can’t believe that life could have gone on to be so normal as to be able to pursue a teenage love crush, or attend the local cricket team matches without some obvious distress. Religion and conscience – guilt of law breaking, even of stealing threepence (even a penny) from my mum’s purse, and lying about it – were hallmarks of growing up in my 1960’s. Finding a dead body, let alone hiding it, would have been an impossible responsibility and worrisome load to carry around, I can assure you. Watching  PERRY MASON, on television with my grandma every week had taught me that you will be found out and that crime does not pay, except in a jail term. Mr Silvey’s teenage reality of 1960 Australia seems, to me, far fetched and a catastrophic research flaw.

Kate Mulvany first adapted this novel for the Barking Gecko Theatre Company, in Perth, in 2014, and has revised it for the Belvoir production. The novel  with its events and all its personas has been reduced to nine characters for six actors to play. It is, in this instance, a very true, ‘Reader’s Digest’ adaptation of the novel and serves the source material with respect and little embellishment. That the writing of the characters of the play are broad caricatures and shallow psychological observations and, mostly, just easy vehicles of broad identification for the audience to attach too as familiar storytelling archetypes, is no fault of hers. For, Mr Silvey’s writing is shallow as the primary source for this play.

The shallowness of character in the writing – the original source and the adaptation – is then further compounded when the Director of this production, Anne-Louise Sarks, when taking it from the page to the stage, makes no demands of her actors to develop ‘psychological truthfulness’ to backstory the bald events of the figures in the landscape of the narrative. That the actors themselves felt no need to do more than act out the narrative with other than a two dimensional ‘drawing’ of character, sometimes thickly overplayed, was another surprise, indeed, knowing their work as performers in other tasks.

Tom Conroy, as Charlie Bucktin, carried the bulk of the work with a clear-sighted energy that propelled the performance, and he did convince us that he was a 14 year-old boy, with appropriate physical gestures. Charles Wu relied on the cliche of the writing and his personal charm to capture the easy laughs in his impersonation of the Vietnamese boy, Jeffrey Lu, who dreams of being a great cricketer in 1965 Australia – what could be funnier and more ridiculous, eh?! – forget his and his family’s ‘trauma’ of getting to and then living in remote, white Australia as part of Jeffrey’s dilemma or motivation. Kate Mulvany had written two roles for herself, the bully boy, Warwick and in a stark and theatrical contrast, Charlie’s unhappy mum, flourishing, on stage, the obvious outlines of her characters with a thick-felt penmanship with not much, especially for Mrs Bucktin, complication of insight or psychological revelation – the bare, ‘brassy’ outlining, enough, it seemed. Steve Rodgers in his dual demand of the thinly written (and mysterious) Mr Bucktin, and then the mysterious Mad Jack Lionel, revealed his usual efficient self in the provided narrative context – ever reliable (thank goodness). Matilda Ridgeway plays the two tragic sisters, especially, Eliza without much inner insight to help us understand what was going on – and what is going on IS enormous, we discover in the late scenes of the play – and it was definitely a surprise when we are told what Eliza had known for all of the play – you would never have guessed that anything much was going on in the life force of Eliza as given by Ms Ridgeway. Each of these actors, basically, depending on their own charm to deliver the material – ‘learning the lines and nor bumping into the furniture’, it seemed.

The only moment of any dealing with exposing emotional depth was the truly effective playing by Guy Simon, as Jasper Jones, himself. In the shock of the truth of the revelation of Laura’s motivation for her suicide, in the latter moments of scene ten, it was a heart stopping moment of real grief, mined by Mr Simon, that threw the other performances and the whole of the production into an even more vivid contrast of bland and shallow caricaturing. Impressive, indeed. The others, simply, impersonating the characters and telling the narrative, as if it were animated radio, was not enough, for me. They gave me very little subtlety of choice to ‘read’ as an audience and to be able to imaginatively endow, in their performances.

The best of the production was the Design of Michael Hankin with its tree, and the wheeled-on ‘trucks’ for the different houses of the town. Simple and light-weight efficiency in the white painted surround, inspired some, perhaps, by his recent IVANOV*** design solution. The Lighting by Matt Scott, magnified the vision of Mr Hankin.

I bought a standing-room ticket for a Saturday matinee, so popular was this show. It was the only way I could see the production before I headed away overseas on a holiday. It was clear that the book fans – school students – in the theatre were pleased with this two and a half hour production. I was not.

The major problem was the source material of Mr Silvey’s novel, I reckon, and how I wished that instead of JASPER JONES, that we were, rather, watching an adaption of any of Sonya Hartnett’s peerless novels – perhaps, BUTTERFLY, and her heroine, Plum Coyle – a novel, coincidently, written in 2009, as well. The psychological truths of the experience of being an adolescent growing up in Australia has in Ms Hartnett’s books, a depth of observation and painful truth that could bear dramatisation and a theatrical triumph. Check her out.

It was pleasing, despite all else, to be in the the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, with a ‘popular’ success.