Elena Carapetis in That Eye, The Sky. Photo by James Hartley
Tim Winton’s That Eye, The Sky (1986) was first adapted for the stage in the 1990s, by Justin Monjo and Richard Roxburgh. In this revival by State Theatre Company of SA, directed by Kate Champion, Winton’s naturalism is fully embodied, but ultimately, despite the excellent cast, set, and direction, the moral ambiguity doesn’t serve the narrative.
Geoff Cobham’s abstract set design is stunning and innovative. The family home is presented as a sprawling, dirt mountain, the sort of country landscape Ort would be playing in. A large pool sits at the front of the stage, extending into the audience (a word of warning to those in the front row – you might get splashed), provides a beautiful and tranquil lagoon, a watery liminal space that the characters sit, stand, swim and splash in. The clear plastic curtain used incredibly effectively in the car crash that begins the play raises to become the symbolic cloud over the family home, shot through with stunning light displays as Ort struggles with spiritual crises. Winton’s concern with the environment is literalised in Cobham’s staging, as nature and space become the means through which characters and the audience understand the psychological and spiritual trauma and healing of the narrative.
In a speech Winton recently gave about his latest book The Shepherd’s Hut (published in part in The Guardian), he said “There’s so much about them and in them [boys] that’s lovely. Graceful. Dreamy. Vulnerable. Qualities we either don’t notice, or simply blind ourselves to. You see, there’s great native tenderness in children. In boys, as much as in girls.” That tender and complex portrayal of children is certainly evident in young Ort, whose simple but deep worldview is beautifully captured. That deep understanding, however, falls short when it comes to the men in the play. Perhaps it is the ambiguity and refusal of closure Winton is famous for, but there seems to be a deep concern to explain away the moral (and ethical and legal) failings of the men, without overt condemnation or criticism. This is particularly the case with the tortured (perhaps fraudulent) preacher Henry Warburton, whose unethical misbehaviours (including sex with a minor) aren’t examined as deeply as I would have hoped. Christopher Pitman ably portrays the desperation, fear and spiritual confusion of the man, but the script just seemed… lacking.
Alongside Pitman, the rest of the cast are also excellent, naturalistic and without the melodrama that a story like this might evoke, due in large part to Kate Champion’s subtle but deep directing. Elena Carapetis as Alice Flack is a stand-out, quiet and stoic in her grief and confusion. Tim Overton is also excellent as the young Ort Flack, capturing the naivety of a twelve-year-old boy struggling with life-changing events.
That Eye, The Sky is a deep and complex exploration of the Australian family in the midst of trauma and grief, faithful to Winton’s source, perhaps to a fault. Nevertheless, Cobham’s set, Champion’s elegant direction, and the cast’s compassionate acting make this a worthy production.
3.5 out of 5 stars