Beneath a giant tree, branches reaching out across the sky, sit two teenagers: bookish Charlie (Tom Conroy) and outcast-troublemaker Jasper Jones (Guy Simon). They have never hung out before; Jasper is a loner, and Charlie is a little too square to strike up such an alliance as this. But they have bonded quickly. A girl has died, and to stop from the blame falling, as it always does, on Jasper’s shoulders, they’ve decided to investigate.
Based on the 2009 novel by Craig Silvey, adapted by Kate Mulvany and directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, Jasper Jones is elegant, gently sad, and sensitively curious – a snapshot of a larger story, and a larger, darker legacy in our towns.
Jasper is biracial, his Indigenous blood offensive to the fictional Western Australia town of Corrigan. It’s the hot tail-end of 1965, a slow, insect-ridden summer where the Shire President and police use violence and intimidation when no one is looking, always presenting a genial face to the public. Eliza (Matilda Ridgway) reads Breakfast at Tiffany’s and dreams of Manhattan, reaching out for Charlie, who dreams of Brooklyn. Workers are being laid off from the local mine in droves. The Vietnam War is becoming impossible to ignore; the community’s sons are being drafted and dying. Charlie’s best friend, Jeffrey (Charles Wu), is Vietnamese, and he and his family must withstand endless abuse from most people in town – while their family too dies in the war. And then there’s Mad Jack Lionel (Steve Rodgers), the bete noir of Corrigan, who never leaves his house.
All everyone wants to do is live.
But a girl has died.
On Michael Hankin’s set that gorgeously summons the very specific sense of place and space in small Australian towns, Sarks keeps her touch light ( the boys run through the audience tossing unpredictable cricket balls) until it’s time to press down firmly (naked space as a mother and son face off, trying to understand one another).
Sarks and Hankin are united in their dance of the expanse and restriction of Corrigan and its residents by Matt Scott’s knowing lighting, coaxing sunsets out of the shadows of narrow and gnarled branches and onto pensive faces, shaping a thrilling cricket match with the suggestion of warmth, a welcome break in the tense despair permeating the story.
Conroy’s Charlie, a charming mess of adolescent humour and hormones and the archaic vocabulary of a voracious young reader, doesn’t know how to handle the very real trauma infecting his thus-far amiable existence. He relies heavily on Jasper, who in Simon’s hands is brittle but deeply sensitive, to navigate his new existence.
Matilda Ridgway brings a tender subversiveness to the fore as Eliza, who here is much more defined as a person than in Silvey’s novel (a particularly smart move by Mulvany has Eliza tell Charlie a story that, in the book, he discovers on his own), and so too is Mrs Bucktin, Charlie’s mother – in whom Kate Mulvany has found on the page and in her performance an important, grounding link: she speaks for all the women who are beaten and beaten down in rural towns where only men seem to be given the right to matter.
But there is so much story to pack into just one play that it ends up feeling strained. The play runs smoothest when it finds its emotional centre: Charlie and Jasper grappling with grief and shock; Charlie and Jeffrey trying to define bravery; Charlie and Eliza trying to establish a shared mutual connection; Mrs Bucktin trying to find her place in a life she never planned for herself.
A novel like Silvey’s has so much to say and draws so many threads together that it’s almost impossible to recreate on stage, and Mulvany’s adaptation presents the story in a new and appealing way. But there’s a consistent sense that the story still feels too big for this play and its construction. It sits on the edge of giving us too much narrative and information; it’s not too long but the content itself has no room to breathe and settle. Sometimes we forget about the girl who has died. We forget about, and are perhaps not given a lot of time to consider, her own story. But where could we put that story?
And what we have is good, and thoughtful, and solid. It’s so hard to build this kind of bildungsroman out of mountains of text, to capture a movement and moment in time alongside a small-town whodunit, but Mulvany has created something crackling and genuine here, a glimpse of racial and gender inequity in our all-too recent past. Take a teen.