Theatre

Although Melbourne Theatre Company’s Storm Boy is lushly produced, Colin Thiele’s story is showing its age – particularly in the face of a global climate emergency. By Alison Croggon.

MTC’s Storm Boy

John Batchelor, Tony Briggs and Conor Lowe in MTC’s Storm Boy.
Credit: Jeff Busby

In the space of my lifetime, our relationship to the natural world has changed irrevocably. More people now live in cities than in the country for the first time in history. Alienated from the ecologies that nurture us, we are unable to fully understand what is happening to our world.

It turns out that we are the worst natural disaster of all, and we don’t even know how to perceive the scale of the catastrophe.

Not long ago, it was possible to imagine the natural world as something that transcended human pettiness and greed, the baseline of continuities that would endure beyond our mortal lives. Now we have a new word, “solastalgia”, coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, to describe the existential sorrow caused by environmental destruction.

Colin Thiele’s children’s book Storm Boy was first published in 1964. When I read it as a country child, the fable of the lonely boy who rescues and tames a wild creature wasn’t very far from my own experience. As was also normal at the time, I read myself into the protagonist – the books I related to most were about boys. Re-reading it as an adult, it’s not hard to see both the story’s charm and its limitations.

Storm Boy is a coming-of-age fable about a child who lives with his reclusive father, Hide-Away Tom, in a shack on the Coorong on the Ninety Mile Beach. Storm Boy rescues three baby pelicans who are orphaned by hunters. After he releases them back to the wild, one of the birds, Mr Percival, returns. The book follows the boy’s relationship with the pelican: how he tames it, how he loves it, how it is destroyed by the violence of men.

Storm Boy’s only friend is Fingerbone Bill, an Aboriginal man who acts as the conduit for wisdom. Thiele deploys Fingerbone Bill as a stock character – a black man in a white-centred story who selflessly helps the white protagonist; a trope that has come to be known in the United States as the “magical Negro”. In Thiele’s original text, we know almost as little about Fingerbone Bill as we do about Storm Boy’s dead mother, who is mentioned just once. Women don’t exist in this imaginative world, it seems; even the pelicans are all Misters.

Henri Safran’s acclaimed 1976 film, adapted by Sonia Borg and Sidney L. Stebel, does create some backstory for both; we learn that Fingerbone, given a charismatic performance by Yolngu actor David Gulpilil, is estranged from his people because he broke kinship law, and that Storm Boy’s mother died in a car accident after she and Tom separated.

Thiele was reportedly angered by a scene in this adaptation, in which men hoon around the sand dunes in a beach buggy, because of the crudity of its environmental message. He would probably have been enraged by the 2019 remake, which features Geoffrey Rush as the adult Storm Boy reflecting on his childhood. Its subtext, by all accounts, has the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

And now Tom Holloway’s 2013 stage adaptation is back, in a new production by Sam Strong at the Melbourne Theatre Company, before it heads north for a Brisbane season. It’s brilliant to see the MTC putting serious resources into a mainstage show for young people and, in many ways, especially in its visual richness, this Storm Boy is a charming show.

But the production carries an unsettling dislocation. Thiele’s fable about the cruelty of men reads differently in 2019. Rather than carrying a message about protecting our environment, it reflects an increasing sense that the human experience of the natural world is no longer primarily firsthand. Rather, it’s mediated through nature documentaries and zoos, as our wild places vanish into a haze of nostalgia. A sense of counterfeit persists throughout the show, a feeling that lyricism is being translated into the merely picturesque.

However ordinary the 2019 film may be, it’s not hard to understand the impulse to shift perspective on the original story. In the four decades since Thiele’s book was published, our world – and the world of Storm Boy – has utterly changed. Thiele’s landscape no longer exists: since the 1980s, the wetlands of the Coorong, at the mouth of the Murray–Darling Basin, have been degraded by increasing water usage upriver and are now on the verge of ecological collapse.

In the MTC production, this reality is dealt with by ignoring it altogether.

Holloway’s script exaggerates the book’s sparseness: the dialogue thins the characters into lustreless, atomised individuals. There is little tenderness in the relationship between Storm Boy (played by Conor Lowe) and his father (John Batchelor): for the first third I felt I was watching the tale of an abused child. Fingerbone Bill (Tony Briggs), perhaps in an attempt to backpedal the “magical Negro” trope, mostly retails bad dad-jokes, relying on Briggs’s warm performance to make up for the paucities in the text.

The labour of evoking feeling and Thiele’s lyrical descriptions of the natural world is mainly left to the actors and the design. There’s no denying Storm Boy is lushly produced – Anna Cordingley’s naturalistic sand dune set, augmented by richly videoed backdrops of ocean waves rolling in to a sandy beach, is given emotional resonance through Darrin Verhagen’s sound design. The pelicans are represented by ingenious mechanical puppets operated in plain sight by three puppeteers.

Puppets can be potent vehicles for displaced emotion. The high point of the entire production comes in a single gesture: when Mr Percival dies in Storm Boy’s arms and its puppeteer stands up to leave, leaning forward to brush the boy’s cheek in farewell. It’s a stunning moment of stagecraft, one that almost makes up for the clunky movements between scenes, signalled too often by the lowering of a fire curtain and blackouts, and an uncertain directorial rhythm that saw the audience applauding a false ending.

It’s interesting to compare Storm Boy with Ken Loach’s altogether bleaker 1969 film Kes, which was adapted from Barry Hines’ book A Kestrel for a Knave. In Kes, 15-year-old Billy Casper, a working-class boy in the north of England, captures and tames a kestrel, learning falconry from a book that he steals from a second-hand bookshop. When Billy’s loutish brother kills Kes in revenge for a petty misdeed, Billy buries his hopes with the corpse of the bird.

Through Kes, Billy discovers the possibility of escape from his brutal, hopeless everyday realities: desolate scenes in a grim northern town are intercut with idyllic glimpses of the local woods. In both Kes and Storm Boy, the wild bird is an analogue for the boy’s untamed soul. The natural world, for all its dangers – tiger snakes, predatory animals, storms – is a place of sublimity and innocence, a refuge from human cruelty. And in both stories, this innocence is destroyed by the violence of men.

However, in Storm Boy the death of Mr Percival represents a passage to a wider adulthood when Storm Boy takes up an offer to go to boarding school that he previously refused. Mr Percival’s death is resolved as part of a larger cycle of renewal: at the end, we hear that “birds like Mr Percival never really die”. That’s not a possible panacea for Billy. His mother tells him, in a fit of irritation at her son’s wild grief, that he can always get another bird: but he knows he will never find another Kes.

Kes isn’t, of course, a story for children. Even so, Storm Boy’s optimism about the possibility for healing in the natural world, its boundlessness even in the face of human carelessness or brutality, no longer holds the truth that it once did. Perhaps this is why the pessimism and anger of Kes has aged rather better in the century of solastalgia.

But there are other reasons, too. Storm Boy is a quintessentially colonial story of the mid-20th century, a time that holds the seeds of our current crisis. It wasn’t so much an era of innocence as of ignorance. Largely, this production shows this story can only read as nostalgia now – a fairytale, as is often dismissively said, for children. But even as a child, I wanted my fairytales to be truthful. Maybe we need new stories. 

 

MTC’s Storm Boy is showing at the Sumner Theatre, Southbank, until July 20. The Queensland Theatre season will run from July 29 to August 17 in the Playhouse, QPAC.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2019 as "The lie of the Storm". Subscribe here.

Alison Croggon
is an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and critic.