Andrew McGahan's award-winning novel, The White Earth, is a sweeping story; complicated ideas set in a vast landscape over more than a century. That the play, a La Boite Theatre Company production premiering in February, managed to capture much of the visual and ideological scope of McGahan's story is a real achievement.
Terrific production design transformed the Roundhouse Theatre into Kuran Station deep in the Australian outback, creating the ranches and billabongs central to this story of property rights and, more than that, the entitlement to personal identity. McGahan can clearly picture his story vividly, and as co-director and co-writer (with Shaun Charles, who also co-created the theatrical adaption of McGahan's second novel Last Drink in 2000) his three-dimensional recreation is inspired.
An imposing set and clever lighting and sound (including beautiful video footage projected on stage to drive the story through the decades) almost makes the audience feel the warmth of a morning sunrise and the humidity of a scorching day. The team of designer Greg Clarke, lighting designer David Walters, sound design and music composition from Guy Webster and the cinematic design from Brisbane firm Markwell Presents deserves much of the credit for perhaps the most visually impressive La Boite production staged.
The performances, too, particularly stage and screen veteran Anthony Phelan as the protagonist John McIvor, don't shy away from the emotional ambiguity in the characters. There are no heroes or villains in this piece, simply people with relatable motivation if not likeable in how it manifests.
The White Earth has been judged one of Australia's finest contemporary novels, winning the Miles Franklin Award along with numerous other accolades since first being published in 2004. It is a fascinating character study on the grandest scale; the story of Australia itself in many ways through the eyes and complex psychologies of one particular family. It tells the story of aboriginal displacement and land rights from a unique perspective: the white fellas who feel their own deep connection and sense of entitlement to the land they grew up on. "White man dreaming", as the novel (and John Williamson) calls it.
John McIvor is a nationalist, a zealot for a country he believes belongs as much to him as anyone else. But he defends any charge of racism leveled against him, and when his movement is taken over by Klu Klux Klan-inspired bigots he is torn between belief and morals. In his advancing years he is forced to confront past relationships with family and great life-long love while moulding his young grandson, William, into the keeper of his flames after he is gone.
Actually, it is William, suddenly burdened with the weighty responsibility from his increasingly frantic grandfather and his own spiritual connection with the land, whose journey from carefree boy to worldly warrior is the axis of the story. Only the show program reveals nine-year-old William is actually 30something actress Stace Callaghan in a flawless piece of casting that creates real chemistry with Phelan. She is totally convincing, and duly restrained in the heightened moments of fantasy-drama. All the cast, including Kathryn Marquet, Veronica Neave and Penny Everingham, are solid performers.
This is an impressive work from La Boite, a visual treat that gives its audience much more to think about than many of its previous productions. On stage or in print it is an enduring Australian fable.
La Boite Theatre Company presents
The White Earth
by Andrew McGahan
Adapted for the stage and directed by Shaun Charles and Andrew McGahan
Venue: Roundhouse Theatre
Dates: 25 February – 21 March
Bookings: 07 3007 8600 or www.laboite.com.au