(Brisbane Festival)


By David Malouf

Adapted and directed by Stephen Edwards

Powerhouse Theatre, New Farm

Professional production

Johnno, David Malouf’s coming-of-age novel, is as much a Brisbane icon as Malouf himself. It captures the city in a way that no other work of art ever has, and those people who grew up with the book as well as with Brisbane might wonder how it could ever be translated to the stage.

But those who go to see this staggeringly exciting production expecting a more intellectual version of Hugh Lunn’s much-loved Over the Top with Jim should beware, because this is a very different beast altogether. No cosy reminiscences here, but a cutting-edge theatrical experience that takes audiences right out of their comfort zone into an unknown vision of Brisbane where the metaphor of water is used literally as well as symbolically.

Do you remember when it used to rain in Brisbane? Great heavy drops that drenched the gardens and flooded the gutters, muddied the playing fields and provided endless hours of fun for little kids and adults alike, splashing mud between their toes and having water fights? That’s the only nostalgia you’ll find in this production, where most of the stage is flooded with water and the actors have to perform barefoot – and most of the time get very wet indeed. The only character to avoid water damage is Dante, Johnno’s friend and the narrative voice of the novel and the stage show who, like the protagonist of The Divine Comedy, is led through the different circles of Hell.

Even without this mythical sub-text, Johnno is a deeply spiritual journey. Performed in balletic mode with a minimum of dialogue, it’s a multi-faceted production which also uses back projections on a revolving three-armed fabric screen, and a sensitive soundscape created by Elena Kats-Chernin (listeners to Radio National’s Late Night Live will recognise her from that show’s theme music).

The actors, like the production team, are a culturally eclectic lot – Sean Mee as Dante, Paul Denny as Johnno and Eugene Gilfedder as The Father are long-time Brisbane favourites, but choreographer Caiman Collins is Irish, and many actors come directly from the UK, as does director/adaptor Stephen Edwards of the Derby Playhouse.

It’s the first time any Australian company has collaborated with a British counterpart to produce a piece of theatre, but Brisbane Festival Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini wanted a production that would connect directly with audiences in Brisbane but also have an international resonance. After its Brisbane season, Johnno will travel to England for a three-week season at the Derby Playhouse, and I can’t wait to hear how it’s received there.

I went on the second night, always a good time to go, as the audience is made up not of free-loaders like reviewers and official Friends-of-the-Arts, but genuine theatre lovers who pay good money to put their bums on the seats, and are the real core of live theatre in any city. At interval, many of them seemed puzzled – not about the treatment of the novel in itself, but about the meaning of some of the techniques, especially the purpose of having a stage flooded with water. But by the end everyone had been totally captivated, for once we had all come to terms with the fact that this was not an ordinary stage play in a comfortable genre, but a vivid experiment in form and meaning, its status as a festival piece became firmly established, for festivals are about taking risks, looking at old ideas in new ways, coming from left field, and generally turning audiences upside down and not always landing them on their feet again.

You can find all kinds of mythical and cultural resonances in the production – not just Dante’s journey to the underworld, but the wanderings of Ulysses, Oedipus trying to escape his fate, the peregrinations of Peer Gynt, and even Stephen Daedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses . This is why, in spite of its cultural and geographic specificity, it will probably be well received wherever it travels, because like all great literature it suggests the universal through the particular.

But we can take it on a simpler level, too, and admire the unity of the production as the coming-of-age experience of an Australian larrikin as seen by his more sober school friend. Paul Denny as Johnno is his usual exuberant self, a perfect choice to play the manic but soul-searching pilgrim; while Sean Mee, the stolid Dante, is an enigmatic foil for Denny’s physical and emotional fireworks. Of the ensemble players, none stands out particularly, which is as it should be, although I was amused by the attempts of British actor Emily Pierce, as The Mother, to capture the cadences of a shrill working-class Australian housewife. But the sublime Eugene Gilfedder, one of Australia’s most versatile and subtle actors, in his own quiet way gave all the other actors a discreet lesson in ensemble playing. Every tiny role he had, from the uncomprehending Father to the limp-wristed dancing master teaching the samba, was a little triumph, and perhaps if the other actors had been encouraged to express their own versatility, there might have been a better balance between the two lead actors and the chorus, and thus a lightening of the production, which did occasionally bog down in its own weighty symbolism.

But Johnno was the perfect piece with which to open what promises to be a sparkling and challenging festival – confronting, highly original, yet firmly based in its own locality. This is not the kind of thing that we usually see on our stages, so do yourself a favour and find how exciting live theatre can really be.

Co-director Sean Mee, composer Elena Kats-Chernin, sets and costumes Dan Potra

Playing until 5 August 2006 – Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Tuesday 11am and 6.30pm, Saturday 2pm and 8pm

Duration : two hours 20 minutes, including interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 14th July 2006)