Signs Of Life is Tim Winton’s second play (his first, Rising Water, played in Perth and Melbourne last year). The latest is a theatrical follow-up to his Booker shortlisted and Miles Franklin-winning novel of a decade ago, Dirt Music. Moving from one literary form to another isn’t possible for all writers, even if you happen to be Australia’s greatest living novelist, but Winton seems to have made the transition while maintaining the heart, soul and poetic disposition of his prose.
In this tried-and-tested co-production between Perth’s Black Swan and the Sydney Theatre Company, one finds, perhaps, stylistic or aesthetic hallmarks of the Winton “brand”: desolation; wide, open spaces; a counter-pointed nexus between isolation and intimacy, whether with self, or another. It’s these qualities that set him apart, the whole being something much greater than the sum of those parts, which add up to an evocation of soothing quintessential, yet indefinable, in the Australian character and experience. It may be merely mythical. It may not actually exist, outside our collective mind’s eye. But it’s almost undeniably present and still, one hopes, informs everything we do, no matter how relegated it becomes in an Australia now more about macchiatos than mateship; pork belly than pork-barrelling; stockbrokers than stockmen.
Winton is deeply concerned with identity and belonging; inasmuch, he seems to have a sensibility akin to Aboriginal attachment to country. In a way, this play begins with Zoe Atkinson’s set: an expansive, ramshackle impression of a rundown, lived-in outback house; swathed in off-white, flecked with red. The home itself melts, by way of colour connection into the grand, craggy, drought-stricken tree that once shaded it. Beyond lies a dry snake of river, its watery skin long since shed. Beyond that, dust and a long road to anywhere. Or nowhere. In one fell designer’s swoop, Atkinson endows our entire, innate sense of place: the notion of a wide, brown, unforgiving land, with a narrow green fringe girt by sea.
In steps Heather Mitchell as Georgie, a woman alone. As we learn, she buried her beloved husband and soulmate just six weeks ago. Having fallen from a tree while rescuing a kite entangled by a southerly buster and broken his neck, she dragged his body into their car, drove to the far bank and dug into soft sand, placing him near limestone pinnacles he much admired. She’s somewhat jealous of the benign smile that curled his lips as he lay motionless beneath the branches. But, as we learn, even if she doesn’t, necessarily, Lu is still around. “They’re in everything,” Mona (Pauline Whyman) tells her, as she hands back Lu’s guitar. And Georgie is still talking to Lu, if only to express her frustration, disappointment, resentment, anger and longing, in an effort to reconcile herself to what’s happened and the future she now faces. Lu (George Shevtsov) hovers in ghostly shadow; a benign yet still haunting figure.
Mona’s absconded from a mental hospital, where she was undergoing treatment for alcoholism. She’s been anxious to track down the spirit of her father and, to that end, has dragged her younger brother, a shooter of feral animals, Bender (Aaron Pederson) who knows how far in their broken-down Holden (“I wouldn’t be seen dead in a Ford!”). It’s broken down alright. Run out of petrol on Georgie’s doorstep, which is where we begin, with her quivering as headlights half-light her face (plaudits to Jon Buswell for setting the scene so redolently), only to be extinguished. A substantial shadow approaches her, but she has a gun in hand. Bender tries to explain his predicament. ‘We’re not perverts!’
Georgie reluctantly extends her hospitality to the stranded travellers, but can’t wait to see the back of them. Every morning, they’re leaving, but something keeps them there. Mona senses their Pa’s presence. While Georgie is alarmed by demonstrative conflict between Mona and Bender, she soon realises there’s love and closeness between them. At the same time, over the course of days, Georgie and Bender are, through awkward, monosyllabic utterances and good-natured jibes, getting to know each other and finding rapport, much of it unspoken. Winton has written it with an intimate feeling for communication between stoics and director, Kate Cherry, has allowed her actors plenty of room and time to tease out the tension and express their feelings with sideways glances, half-smiles and stolen stares.
Apart from one scene that seemed by-the-numbers and as if the actors involved were on autopilot, performances are distinguished and memorable. My companion thought that Mitchell might’ve been more credible with a broader accent. I argues that her educated, well-spoken delivery underscored the notion of different ‘planets’: the cultural, socioeconomic and other gulfs between Bender and Georgie might as well have been interstellar. Though from the original cast, Shevtsov, while looking every inch the very picture of an ageing, eccentric hippie, didn’t feel quite right. Whyman, meanwhile, has a daunting ability to shift gears: from the intensely dramatic to the broadly comical. Mitchell endowed Georgie with the uncertainty and reserve of a woman whose lived a long way from anywhere for a long, long time; as lonely now as the sole, craggy tree that clutches tightly to any nourishment it can eke out of barren soil. Pederson is a revelation. It’s not as if we didn’t know he was a fine actor, but he becomes Bender, Bender becomes him, for 75 nailed-to-the-seat minutes.
If you’re looking for a conventional play, that adheres to a dramatic arc, look elsewhere. Winton has, bravely, uncompromisingly, fashioned the form in his own image, so that it becomes more of a meditation, a reflection, than anything else. In terms of possessing and communicating a feeling for what divides and binds us in this nation, Winton is a monk-like figure. He, through this play in particular, inspires hope for gentle, humane, deep-rooted, black-and-white reconciliation as binding as Vegemite on thick, white toast. If we can achieve that, we can achieve anything. Winton seems to measure success in similar terms to David Orr:
“The planet does not need more successful people. But it desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
I suspect not everyone will rate Signs Of Life. It’s almost too subtle for our desensitised, rapid-fire digital senses. Which is precisely what I like about it.