Left – George Shevtsov and Helen Morse. Cover – Tom E Lewis, Pauline Whyman, Helen Morse. Photos – Gary Marsh
Black Swan State Theatre Company have again joined with novelist Tim Winton to produce a new, unique West Australian production. Directed by Kate Cherry, Signs of Life takes two of the characters from Winton's Dirt Music, Georgie and Lu, and puts them in Moore River Country (an hour north of Perth on the coast).
Georgie is widowed, and now lives alone in the farm house, although still talks to the recently departed Lu. Late one night she hears a car break down on the highway. Shortly after, an aboriginal man arrives on her veranda asking for help. Bender and his sister Mona have broken down, and does Georgie have any petrol?
Bender and Mona stay the night, promising to leave in the morning. One night turns into two, then three, then four, and the siblings seem reluctant to leave. The characters eek out relationships based on lost identities, damaged hearts and uncertain futures. They are bleak themes; and the play is thought provoking in its treatment of some of its more controversial topics. There is humour as well, in funny one liners and the occasional witty dialogue between the characters.
The disappointment in Signs of Life lies with the sparse, stilted nature of the text. Whilst the words and writing style may work on film (or paper) where audiences are shown the sweeping views of the countryside and close ups of the characters inner turmoil, it comes across on stage as drawn out and, at times even lacklustre. It is only in the last 15 minutes that the pace picks up, and I was completely engaged.
The cast grapple with a lack of interaction, although I'm unsure whether this is a direction choice or the numerous introspective monologues utilised in the 90 minute play. The audience isn't given much character development (even less if you haven't read Dirt Music), so at times it felt like I was viewing just a part of a production, and there should be more to come.
Zoe Atkinson's set was desolate and flat. A large cut out tree joined with a flat expanse of set leading to the farmhouse's verandah. It was all painted white/grey overlaid with red gashes that looked like veins. Atkinson referenced the word 'absence' whilst designing the set, and she represents it well. Unfortunately, the cast again lack the interaction (this time with the setting) and are occasionally lost in the flatness / blandness of the atmosphere.
As Georgie, Helen Morse is a study in repressed loss and loneliness. Morse portrays Georgie as pragmatic, honest woman willing to help, but for some reason I didn't connect or like the character until the very end of the play. Pauline Whyman does an admirable job playing the unstable Mona, who had few spoken lines but told so much through her body language. As the ghost of Lu, George Shevtsov is wasted, as the character had neither real interaction nor development, used merely a sounding board for Georgie.
As Bender, Tom E. Lewis was the lynchpin, and although I struggled to understand him at times, I found the character to be engaging and likeable, and my heart went out to him. It felt real, and Lewis is to be congratulated on bringing Bender, who we discover has no place or identity, to life with such vibrancy.
Signs of Life has worthy themes, and fascinating characters in a quintessentially Australian production. However it lacks pace and depth and is let down by the stilted text, which has created a play hard to engage and feel for.
Black Swan State Theatre Company & Sydney Theatre Company present
Signs of Life
by Tim Winton
Director Kate Cherry
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 21 July – 18 August 2012
Tickets: $69.50 – $29.50
Regional WA Tour
15 June - 14 July 2012
Sydney Opera House
7 November – 22 December, 2012