New Theatre’s That Eye, The Sky, based on the quintessentially Australian novel by Tim Winton, examines through the eyes of thirteen year old Ort Flack life’s big questions: spirituality, faith and the point of existence.
Ort’s family is struggling. Along with caring for his senile grandmother, his father has had a serious car accident and is now in a coma. As Ort, his mother Alice, and his teenage sister Tegwyn attempt to deal with these struggles, a mysterious stranger named Henry arrives. He may have been ‘sent by God’ to help their family.
This is a dark and mysterious play anchored by a cast at the top of their game, and it looks great, but David Burrowes’ direction is disconnected and he keeps the audience distanced from the emotional pull of the piece. Ort’s experience with religion and faith is one pertinent to our society, one in which many people are searching for answers. But here, it doesn’t land; he is not struggling with those questions with us; rather, he is out of reach from us.
Moreover, the Flack family is crying out for our sympathy with their heartbreaking story, as each character is desperate to find their place and learn how to reconcile their identities with those around them. Burrowes’ hand is too cold and calculating here; it’s hard to find sympathy for these characters who are constantly kept from within arms’ reach.
At the back of the stage (designed by Tom Bannerman) is a large metallic lattice used effectively throughout the show to frame different scenes. In the foreground is a floating ‘cloud’, an illuminated rectangle suspended above the stage that is manipulated throughout the show to be used as different objects. It’s an impressive and edgy look, echoing the dark timbres of the play.
Alana Canceri’s minimalist costume design with earthy tones counters the edginess of the set with the warmth of the natural world, an interesting contrast between alive and artificial. Benjamin Brockman’s gloomy lighting design, with occasional bursts of colour and bright flashing, emphasises the sobriety of the play whilst accentuating that hint of artifice hinted by the metallic set design. The sound design by Hugo Smart and Dean Barry Revell is eerie, and occasionally overwhelming, a dark underscore for serious moments.
Despite the consistent alienation, the cast does an extraordinary job. Joel Horwood as Ort brings great naivety and innocence to the role of the 13 year old, bringing great courage and tenacity to the quizzical adolescent boy. Romney Stanton’s Alice Flack is a caring and empathetic mother, layered with resilience and strength, despite her moments of doubt. Emma Wright brings youthful energy to Tegwyn, which she balances with budding maturity and a hunger to be free from her sheltered hometown and her broken family. Shaun Martindale’s Henry is aloof as he is haunting, with his mysterious and pained past.
This is not an emotionally engaging play, but it is an interesting one, with a captivating technical landscape and compelling performances. It’s intriguing and fascinating, but it won’t take you on a cathartic journey.