STC & BLACK SWAN’S ‘SIGNS OF LIFE’

Tim Winton is a great novelist. I’m drawn into the myriad of characters, their inner conflicts, flawed tactics, troubled relationships, disappointments, hopes and dreams.  I love his landscapes, the barren and faded locations, past care and struggling for survival. With his artful narrator’s voice capturing the psychology and turmoil of his character’s choices blended with his Australianness and an understanding of our culture and its complications- Winton one of our finest living novelists.
What Tim Winton is not is a playwright.
‘Cloudstreet’ was a triumph but it was a clever team of other writers and creatives who brought Winton’s novel to life. ‘Signs of Life’ is showing at the Sydney Opera House and is a collaboration between W.A’s Black Swan State Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company. It is Winton’s second writing specifically for the theatre and it feels distinctly incomplete. You can dress it up, you can punch out the energy but there is no disputing that ‘Signs of Life’ is a failed experiment for a gifted novelist trying to make a transition into playwriting. Whilst ‘Dirt Music’ may have been his inspiration, the play itself was a vignette that misses the tension and rhythm of the book.
The art of writing a play is a challenge I can hardly imagine ever mastering and that is why I have such respect for those who do it so well. The effective choice of language and action in creating powerful relationships, characters, subtext, backstory, imagery, tension and then manipulating space, time, mood…and then add people we recognise or issues that resonate- the melting pot of skill is a phenomenal ask and I don’t begin to say that I could do it. I am not a playwright. Some would argue I can’t write at all but I can recognise when the core of the problem is in the writing and thus we have ‘Signs of Life’.
I was bored. Firstly, Georgie’s story feels irrelevant. Let’s acknowledge that when your protagonist doesn’t engage in her own story, you’ve got problems. Heather Mitchell was fine. She emoted when she needed to, her energy didn’t falter. She tried to breathe some life into a role that was underwritten and lacklustre. As for the ghost of her dead husband Lu (George Shevtsov), what was Winton thinking? It was a role that would have been much better implied than enacted. It felt forced and contrived, much like the monologues of Georgie’s character. What works well in the novel- the slow reveal of the psychological voice, unpacking the mind’s conversation, was like trying to speak gibberish on stage. It didn’t work. We didn’t care. I feel like there’s no subtext in this play. It’s missing the tension in the space between words, between conversations, in the silence of what’s left unsaid or in the implication of those words spoken and then it doesn’t know how to resolve itself when everything is on the table.
And so what are we left with? Probably the most interesting character for us was Bender (Aaron Pedersen) whose stories towards the end of the play, of his father and his relationship with the river were the actual moments when the play showed signs of life, literally. We saw the young boy hiding from his fate at the Mission, a moment of connection with the land and finally the stakes were raised. Pedersen was certainly the strongest on stage and maybe it was because his character had more meat on the bones and perhaps it gave him more of a chance to showcase his skills but he was the pick of the cast.
Pauline Whyman’s Mona was a tough role and I don’t know whether I believed the complexity Winton had written for her- there were just too many overt issues crammed into a limited role that required too much running off stage and banging fists on head.  Refer to my notes above on lack of subtext for clarity here. That could also be a directorial issue- I am not familiar with Kate Cherry’s work but given the thinness of the script, I don’t know what she could have done with it to make it better.
Zoe Atkinson’s design was interesting and certainly set the landscape to create the imagery of desolation. But whilst the set was beautiful in design, it still felt linear in action and I wonder if playing with levels could have given it more depth. Ben Collins’ sound composition really enhanced the environment of abandonment and emptiness and was a thoughtful element in trying to mirror the intentions and location of the play.
‘Signs of Life’ lacks substance. The first hour in this 80 minute show stalls in action and engagement and then ends as abruptly, just when we feel it’s going somewhere. As a play, it doesn’t work and you’re likely to forget the whole thing by breakfast the next morning.
Winton’s transition to playwright is a long, long road to drive and feels like it’s using the wrong petrol in the tank. Here’s hoping that this great writer has better theatrical offerings in the future.

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4 comments

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That Guy November 25, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Just to note this is Winton's second go round as a playwright (his first, "Rising Water", is published by Currency and reasonably easily available) – and it doesn't sound like he's improving any, in fact, he may be getting worse.

The skills transfer from novelist to playwright don't always fly (Thomas Keneally tried repeatedly without success, for example), and there's no shame in saying it doesn't work. There is shame in major companies exploiting a well known writer's name to put on a script that simply isn't ready for performance.

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jane November 26, 2012 at 1:24 am

I'm reading 'Rising Water' at the moment and it's a struggle. I think you're right- playwriting is not his medium but companies know that his name will get people in the door. It got mine.

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Soundburger November 26, 2012 at 3:08 am

Considering how much I adore Tim Winton's writing, this was without a doubt the most disappointing experience I've ever had in watching theatre.
Whilst everything you say about the script is spot on, I would go further. The ineptitude of the directing was staggering – it's one thing to struggle to direct a script with no subtext, but quite another to just give up and have every single line be meaningless.
On at least half a dozen occasions, I felt as though the actor had been specifically instructed to put the emphasis on the precise words that would give the line no meaning whatsoever.

By the end of the play, my partner and I had invented a new game – tap out on the other's leg a timecount of the pauses before each line. We were never less than 3 seconds, with the average being 8 and the record 25. I'm all for the caesura, ever since I saw it in Eddie and the Cruisers. But there was no meaning in these silences, just a futile attempt to show how important everything was. (or perhaps to stretch out a little more runtime.)

Add to that the fact that there was only one point where two characters seemed to be speaking their lines to each other, rather than just declaring them to the room/audience, and you get a play that was lucky it didn't have an interval, because – for the first time in my life – I was getting ready for a walkout.

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That Guy December 17, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Weirdly enough, Winton has a third play with the same director premiering in Perth in 2013 (although, unlike the first two, this isn't being picked up by an East-coast company). My guess is that his work sells pretty reasonably to a Perth crowd and he's difficult to turn down on that basis (indeed, it may have sold reasonably well to a Sydney crowd as well – how were the audiences at "Signs of Life"?) – after all, it's show-business, not always show-art.

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