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That Eye The Sky

Photo by Bob Seary

New Theatre presents THAT EYE, THE SKY adapted by Richard Roxburgh and Justin Monjo, from the novel by Tim Winton, at the New Theatre, Newtown. 15 March – 15 April, 2016.

From the hand bill for this production at the New Theatre, of an adaption, by Richard Roxburgh and Justin Monjo, of Tim Winton’s 1986 novel, THAT EYE, THE SKY:

In a small Western Australian town 13 year-old Ort Flack is coming to terms with terrible changes in his world.
His father lies paralysed in a coma, his older sister is consumed by hate, his grandma exists in a fog of dementia and his once carefree mother can’t cope.
Then a mysterious stranger appears and bewitches them all.
Tim Winton’s novel about a young boy’s experiences of love, loss, faith and family has been adapted into an evocative theatrical experience infused with humour, spirituality and humanity.

The original adaptation by Mr Roxburgh and Monjo has now been further adapted (with permission, I assume) by the Director of this production, David Burrowes. Mr Burrowes, reports the program notes: is a graduate of the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales (Batchelor of Digital Media) and the National Institute of Dramatic Art – NIDA (Master of Fine Arts, Directing):

His practice is centred around the later theories of Stanislavsky, specifically Active Analysis, and his post-graduate thesis sought to articulate a directing methodology and rehearsal practice specific to narrative screen content grounded in this practice. …

The first act of this production, seems to me, so full of an indulgent exploration/pursuit of the rehearsal methodology theory of Mr Burrowes’ recent study that the play, the storytelling of the material, written by Mr Roxburgh and Monjo, has been jettisoned as a secondary interest. We are offered some half-baked conceptual ‘installation-art’ images: for instance, a rectangular light box that is mechanically and clumsily hoisted throughout the act, bringing the production to a stand still to accommodate its movements; two wheel chairs in which are sat two grey mannequin dolls, one with a tape recorded voice machine strapped to it that represents grandma that ‘squawks’ out noise that I supposed was text (essential or not, who knows?), and another, a silent one, that represents the paralyzed father – by the time we have sorted out what (who) they represent we seem to have missed dialogue and action that may have given us something to be involved with; we are given actors who move across the stage in stylised patterns of movement and who also climb the back-walled setting, speaking the text with hardly any commitment to talk to each other, or to communicate comprehensibly to the audience, a narrative.

The play, as received by the audience with this production, is, especially in the first act, progressively, a thorough incomprehensible ‘mess’, lacking any graspable clarity. Nor can we even give awe to the ‘Directorial’ conceits, for they have no clarity of raison d’être, of meaning either, and are, to boot,  poorly executed. It seems that Mr Burrowes has had a lot of theory in his Master’s degree of Directing from NIDA, but not much practise of it.

Last year Mr Burrowes Directed a production of the great comic classic THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, for the New Theatre, and I found it so crowded with the  attentions (and intentions) of an aspiring auteur bent on dismembering the original via, I guess, a lot of ‘theory’, that I left at the interval. Mr Burrowes, it seemed, thought that he could make contributions to enhance the Sheridan original. He didn’t, and any laughter that he may have got from his audience, and there was some, – mostly sycophantic – was at the expense of the classic wit, character and plotting of the Sheridan masterwork. It was like watching the petulant destruction of an art work by vandals, and the only reason to have done so seemed to be,  because they could – for nothing presented by that company in the first act, at least, justified what was being wrought. One wonders if they could have, if they wished, given the play a production, as writ and so reveal the reason for its Classic classification in the canon of dramatic literature? (It is a very difficult task to do that in itself, let alone dicker with it.) Michael Billington lists THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, in his recent book, The 101 Greatest Plays From Antiquity to the Present (2015). One can, of course, debate that honour.

I came back into the theatre after the interval of THAT EYE, THE SKY, out of some loyalty to all of the artists, who have, obviously, toiled, and because of a faint but pleasant memory of the original production of 1994. I believe it is important to nurture the young artists of the future, and I applaud the New Theatre management for doing so, but I wonder if a ‘workshop production’ of these ‘visionary’ explorations of theory would serve the opportunity for the Director more efficaciously, validly, especially for his reputation with an audience. The curating of last year’s THE CANTERBURY TALES, at the New Theatre, a work Conceived and Directed by Constantine Costi, James Vaughan and Michael Costi, and presented as a ‘workshop production’ seemed to be the right way to serve these young artists. Exposure as a MainStage Production of THAT EYE, THE SKY, does not seem to serve anybody’s reputation well – and least of all, the writers, including Mr Winton. When practice has caught up to theory, then perhaps, present the exploration as MainStage fare.  New Theatre is capable of producing worthwhile work (TOP GIRLS, SWEENEY TODD), but the unreliable standard of care, the inconsistency of its quality of product, as supervised by the Artistic Management, make it a very hit or miss experience, and does not incline one to attend that theatre with indefatigable loyalty – time is too precious and there is so much else to do.

Joel Horwood, as Ort, does the best he can with the Directorial demands made on him, and certainly the second act of this production is less clogged with Directorial inspiration to thwart the actor, so that his story does become more apparent. This actor can, it seems, ‘swim’ and so successfully gets, respectably, to the other end of the ‘pool’. All of the other actors try to ‘swim’ but do not surmount the difficulties of Mr Burrowes’ vision, sufficiently, to get to the end of the ‘pool’ with clarity. Certainly, they do not seem to have had much care from their Director on what is working and what is not  and so, to continue the metaphor, ‘drown’. One wonders, does the Directorial Masters Degree at NIDA give the participants sufficient opportunities to practice that vital skill? How to assist an actor. How many arcs of storytelling, either complete one act or full length plays, do these Masters of Fine Arts – Directing, have? Do they work with professional actors or just students – case of ‘the blind leading the blind’? It is not apparent that they have much experience of staging a play based on the result in this work or in last year’s work, by Mr Burrowes. The Sound Composition by Hugo Smart and Dean Barry Revell is the best of the artistic contributions in this production, it having a contemporary energy and startling effect to create a wonder of the world of Ort and the stars in his sky. Benjamin Brockman has lit the show with some beautiful effects but has not always illuminated the action Directed by Mr Burrowes.

THAT EYE, THE SKY, at the New Theatre, is not a very successful production. One had to make do with the memory of the original production by Burning House, in a church hall in Darlinghurst as part of the 1994 Sydney Festival, starring Hugo Weaving, Susan Prior, Celia Ireland, Steve Rodgers and David Wenham. Those were the days.

Of course, one can read the novel for about the same expense as the ticket at the New Theatre.Your choice!