'Cloudstreet': a spectacular staging of an Australian classic

A scene from the Black Swan State Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre co-production of 'Cloudstreet'. Photo: Philip Gostelow, Black Swan Theatre WA

Adapted by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo from the novel by Tim Winton
Starring Arielle Gray, Brenna Harding, Natasha Herbert, Keegan Joyce, Bert LaBonté, Ebony McGuire, Mikayla Merks, Ian Michael, Benjamin Oakes, Scott Sheridan, Greg Stone, Alison Whyte
A Black Swan State Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre co-production
His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, 21 February to 15 March

Cloudstreet is one heck of a theatrical experience, one that was greeted with repeated standing ovations at its Perth opening night.

The story, for those who have not been exposed to it, is the decades-long saga of two working-class families, thrown together by bad fortune, sharing a large, ramshackle house in Perth’s Nedlands area from 1943 to 1963.

Cloudstreet began life in 1991 as Tim Winton’s best-selling, Miles Franklin Award winning novel, was first adapted for the stage with international success in 1999 and became a TV mini-series in 2011. It has become an Australian classic.

This is a huge production, with the set adapting itself in various shapes and the stage flooded with water as the Swan River comes into the narrative. The inclusion of Noongar language goes beyond Winton’s original and is very welcome.

The acting is top-notch and vigorous, with the whole cast lighting up the theatre. The climax is a staging wonder that left me gasping.

However, the scale of this production cannot cover for weaknesses in both Winton’s story and the play itself. Even at five hours it feels cramped.

Winton created a huge canvas for himself and struggled filling it. His story lurches where it should glide.

Cloudstreet’s narrative stretches over two decades of family life, during which 13 characters interact. Add to that Aboriginal ghosts weaving in and out, other minor characters, plus the over-shadowing presence of Perth’s early-1960's mass murderer, Edgar Cook, and you have a huge amount to communicate.

The play’s script often feels like pages of the book being declaimed from the stage, with occasional, somewhat jarring doses of magical realism. Advance familiarity with the book helps to understand some sequences.

With individual actors playing multiple roles, I sometimes lost track of who was who. The ensemble could have been considerably larger.

To be truly emotionally affecting perhaps the tale could have been edited severely or the playwrights could have gone for it, extending the performance out over a couple of days and really challenged the audience. Many years ago English theatre director Peter Brook created a nine-hour adaptation of The Mahabharata, presented over days, and audiences coped.

In Perth especially, Cloudstreet has the status of holy writ. People would gladly immerse themselves in an extended production.

Be that as it may, this play is a spectacle that is worth seeing.