Although the Malthouse Theatre’s production of Cloudstreet is flawed, its failings cannot overshadow the fundamental power of Tim Winton’s novel. By Peter Craven.

Malthouse Theatre’s Cloudstreet

Scott Sheridan and Natasha Herbert in the Malthouse production of Cloudstreet.
Scott Sheridan and Natasha Herbert in the Malthouse production of Cloudstreet.
Credit: Pia Johnson

Cloudstreet must be the most beloved Australian novel in the past 30-odd years, and it has serious claims to being the greatest. Tim Winton’s saga about two families, the Pickles and the Lambs, is a masterpiece of something like magical realism – one that will bear comparison with the very best of Gabriel García Márquez – yet its quasi-fantastical elements are insinuated so effortlessly into the novel’s unfolding that it reads like an absolutely credible representation of Australian life from 1943 to 1963.

Why in God’s name would you put a baggy monster like Cloudstreet on stage? For the same reason that we put War and Peace on stage and on screens of varying size – we have to because the level of achievement is so inherently dramatic. It makes perfect sense that a work that stirs the national soul in a manner far beyond the pallid pieties of canonicity should be adapted into a five-hour epic.

The new Malthouse production of Cloudstreet uses the late Nick Enright and Justin Monjo’s masterful script, which Neil Armfield directed in 1998 for Belvoir and Black Swan to stupendous effect. That production, which toured the nation and also went to London and New York, featured actors – such as Max Cullen, in the part of the feckless gambler Sam Pickles – who seemed born to play these roles.

So is this Malthouse production a good version of Cloudstreet? No. Is it worth seeing? Yes, because the heroic grandeur of the work clings to its enunciation, even at its lamest. And there are elements in this production, such as Alison Whyte’s very fine performance as Oriel Lamb – who establishes the shop, who ceases to be acknowledged in the mind of her beautiful son Fish, who lives (God knows why) in a tent – that inhabit the Lawleresque patois of this vernacular epic and make it seem like the mighty Shakespearean thing it is.

Matt Lutton is a director who can seem to leave his actors like beached whales. His use of the stage is random and incoherent as if any action – a birth, a shooting, the horror of brain damage to a child – can take place any old how, without an especially arresting reason.

The long horizontal stretch of the stage in Zoë Atkinson’s design is grey, not unpleasing, like a patterned insinuation of rock, but the walls of the Cloud Street house – which get none of the illusionistic benefit of a proscenium arch – look makeshift. Meanwhile, the intensely dramatic scenes in the boat – which include Fish’s near-death catastrophe – are done stolidly, a little boat placed unimaginatively on a wet stage.

Cloudstreet on stage should be as it is in the mind’s eye: a ravishing magical experience. Half the magic inheres in the director’s ability to inject a sense of wonder into Australian life at its most mundane – at once intensely familiar in its detail while also defying ordinary notions of probability.

Chesterton was not wrong to say that if a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing badly, and this revival of Cloudstreet – which demonstrates moment after moment how much Winton’s novel is beyond the director’s prowess – nevertheless moved an intense speculative interest in the audience even when they were expatiating on what was going wrong.

Let’s start with the most difficult issue to negotiate. In Lutton’s production, Fish, the wild boy, the quicksilver sprite of a son who we imagine as a figure of semi-magical beauty and whose tragedy we beweep, is played by Benjamin Oakes, an actor who lives with a disability, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was a child. The effect of this casting decision is, alas, a distortion of the character even though it can be moving.

When Oakes delivers Fish’s final cry – as he goes back to water, to the dark, to God perhaps – he is rhapsodic, but his performance belies the stabbing tragicomic quality of Fish’s characterisation throughout the novel and the eerie piercing grandeur of his last moment. Yes, Fish has to get big; yes, he has to exhibit the poignancy of his affliction; but Lutton’s approach here is light years away from the darkness and beauty and sense of divinity that shapes human calamity in the book.

None of which is to gainsay the snatches of real feeling throughout this production. Natasha Herbert, who plays the slatternly Dolly Pickles, rank with lust and self-indulgence, starts as something of a cartoon, but her performance grows over the course of the production, even if does not stay in focus. Bert LaBonté, as Sam Pickles, the role Cullen created, is fine, but he’s hardly suited to playing the compulsive gambler who is aware of the twisted lines of fate, the shadows that determine his opportunity and qualify it. And Greg Stone as his opposite number, the virtuous former policeman Lester Lamb, shouts and rants and leers around his role as if cutting the characterisation down to the size of things he’s done a thousand times before. Then again, when Stone confronts Guy Simon (who plays Quick, the slow and steady Lamb son) with Oriel’s adherence to the greatest of Christ’s commandments – “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God … and thy neighbour as thyself” – the moment unexpectedly has the same power and moving quality it has in the novel.

Quick wonders how his mother could love God given what has happened to Fish, and his father replies that she tries, she tries. At such moments, this Cloudstreet rises up and presents Winton’s vision – of a world that must be deemed to be good, despite all the storm and sadness, and the overwhelming sense of the tears in things – as an act of faith, giving the audience an almost devotional sense that they are in the presence of something greater than themselves.

It gives this Cloudstreet a weird aspect of myth and ritual, as if the production is the performance of a sacrament, an all-too-human religious service (with the power and the glory off somewhere paring its fingernails). This is heightened when the Indigenous actors in minor roles, Ian Michael and Ebony McGuire, sound a bit wooden and under par in their choric utterances, whether in English or in Noongar. But the sense of something profound behind the theatrics persists, bewildering the mind and illuminating it.

It helps a lot that Enright and Monjo’s script is so good, and that Winton’s own language – even if it operates only as a revenant of literalism – is luminous and resonant. There are long, improbable stretches of this hit-and-miss Cloudstreet where you are simply swept up in the weird and wonderful miracle of storytelling Winton has achieved and which Enright and Monjo have captured by some supreme principle of empathy and economy.

Besides, a fair fraction of the acting is adequate even if the upshot often looks like a shuffling rehearsal. Brenna Harding, as Rose, the nice girl with brains to spare who marries Quick, is likeable, adept and on the money. Among the cast, Alison Whyte is best at grabbing the ball and running with it. She realises and then actualises how that dry ironic voice of female Australia understatement – the voice that animates the speech of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the voice we hear like the music of a parched landscape that cannot lose its magnificence, the voice of Robyn Nevin’s greatest performances – is in fact a voice of Shakespearean richness, with all the intimations of pity and terror in the world.

It is a voice implicit in the vernacular we inhabit and that Winton brought to such animate life when he came into his kingdom with Cloudstreet. It’s a reminder that our deepest allegiance as a nation, our greatest commitment, is to a sense of common life that cherishes the idea of family, that sees the myth of equality and kindness as a thing written in the stars and in the love that moves them. Despite death and desolation, despite the terrible sadness of finding that the greatest of commandments – loving thy neighbour, that old egalitarian cornball – never feels enough, the love of the good and its incarnation requires us to awake our faith. All that profoundly unfashionable Christian legend, together with the sheer dagginess and drone of old-fashioned Australia, runs through Cloudstreet like the wisdom of the world transfigured into poetry.

This is not a great production of Cloudstreet, but everyone at its opening was aware of the fundamental greatness, the epical and dramatic greatness, of the thing it fumbled towards.

Arts diary

THEATRE  Mercury Fur

Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney, May 24-June 8

FESTIVAL  Brisbane Art Design

Venues throughout Brisbane, until May 26

DESIGN Materials Matter: A Bauhaus Legacy

Jam Factory, Adelaide, until July 14

MUSICAL THEATRE  Australian Musical Theatre Festival

Venues throughout Launceston, May 23-26

SCULPTURE  Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor

NGV International, Melbourne, until August 4

VISUAL ART Land Rhythms

Rochfort Gallery, Sydney, until June 15

Last chance

COMEDY  Perth Comedy Festival

Venues throughout Perth, until May 19

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Clouded house".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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