Whatever Happened to the Alternate History?
Kate Mulvany's Jasper Jones
based on the novel by Craig Silvey
Belvoir St Theatre | Sydney
directed by Anne-Louise Sarks
Laura is found dead, and although not wrapped in plastic, the stories in her town of Corrigan bear many similarities to those at David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Burgeoning adolescence, secret lovers, hidden sanctuaries, sexual abuse and a creepy man that holds the key to mysteries. Jasper Jones acknowledges the debt it owes to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. There is certainly more than a sense of familiarity in the way Laura’s murder is explored but the play provides a fresh look at Australia’s own troubled experience of race relations, which remains under-represented in our artistic landscape. Unlike the Americans for example, we have shied away from the truths of our racism, both historical and current, so works such as Jasper Jones that place attention on our indigenous and immigrant cultures are deeply important. Not only for the development of our theatrical heritage but also for a wider benefit to society in general. Healing can only come from understanding and the ugly sides of our histories must be recognised if we are to find meaningful progress as a unified nation.
Kate Mulvany’s witty and highly amusing script portrays a small rural community that is familiar on the surface but surprising and dark underneath. It is concerned with the duality of the Australian memory of a friendly, unpretentious past, and the cruel prejudice suffered by refugees and Aboriginal peoples through the years. Under Anne-Louise Sarks’ direction, characters in the show are idiosyncratically palpable, and every scene is replete with dramatic and comedic tension. Sarks’ show excels in keeping us engaged and emotionally invested, but the central issue of the title role’s adversities seem underwhelming. Jasper is an Aboriginal teenager accused of Laura’s murder, but his struggles do not provide the strongest resonances in the piece. We are distracted by other more pleasurable details in the plot, and like in real life, tend to overlook the serious plight of our country’s first peoples. Jasper Jones is entertaining, dynamic and extremely likeable but its gravity is not sufficiently manifested, resulting in a production that is not as thought-provoking as it should be.
Playing 14-year-old Charlie is (adult actor) Tom Conroy, who depicts purity with incredible accuracy and charm. His performance is entirely believable and we follow his coming-of-age journey with tremendous interest. Conroy provides the anchor on this stage with an endearing nature that ensures that we care for his town and all that happens in it. Equally captivating is Charles Wu as Jeffrey, a young son of Vietnamese immigrants and Charlie’s best friend. The actor displays splendid humour and a natural exuberance that injects energy with every entrance. His irresistible comedy ranges from subtle to slapstick, but no matter his approach, we greet it with uncurbed laughter.
There is much to love in Jasper Jones (including Michael Hankin’s versatile set and Matt Scott’s tender lighting design), but it involves subject matter that requires greater impact. We talk about social injustices frequently and we become blasé about them, if only as a defense mechanism against issues that seem insurmountable. Therefore stories need to pack considerable punch to have real effect. Jasper’s suffering in 1965 cannot be divorced from his ethnicity and fifty years on we have to examine the nature of that prejudice and continue to seek a solution to that preposterous violation of Aboriginal communities that refuses to go away. No single play can bring about a complete revolution, but every attempt should bring us closer.
photo | ©Lisa Tomasetti