This weekend Albany will host the world premiere of Signs of Life, the second play by celebrated author Tim Winton.
Liz Newell speaks with the former Albany man and one of the production’s stars
When the Albany Advertiser last spoke to Tim Winton, he began the conversation by confirming he had called the right person at the right time and not crossed his wires.
It was in the days ahead of the release of his debut play, Rising Water, a Black Swan State Theatre Company production that Winton was more than a little nervous about.
Wildly successful as a writer of Australian literature, he is the only author to have won the Miles Franklin Award four times, most recently in 2009 for Breath, but the playwriting bug had taken its time to bite and Winton could not have been more unsure of Rising Water’s reception if he were an unpublished office worker with no acclaim to his name.
Of course, he needn’t have worried. Rising Water went on to all but sell out its three shows at the AEC and the verdict was unanimous: it was typical Winton, an alternately profound and cheeky look at quintessentially Australian characters grappling with crises big and small, hilarious and heartbreaking.
Now, Winton has wandered into uncharted territory once again, this time with the aim of tying up a few loose ends he feels were left behind at the conclusion of his 2001 novel Dirt Music, which earned him his third Miles Franklin.
After he checks he’s called the right person, he laughs at his own circumstances.
“You’d think a bloke would learn, wouldn’t you?” Winton says.
“Dirt Music as published is only a proportion of the book that was written. Of the book that was written, that’s only a proportion of the book that’s in my head. The story’s quite a bit bigger than what you can usually contain in a book. (Signs of Life) is not so much recycling as retrieval.”
In having the chance to give his characters “another trot round the paddock”, Winton picks up some years since audiences might last have seen Georgie and her beau Lu at the end of Dirt Music.
That Albany has what Winton calls “a special resonance” is due to the fact that he spent much of his formative years as a teenager surfing at Middleton Beach and wading around Princess Royal Yacht Club, fishing.
From its grand opening in his old hometown, the play will embark on a tour of regional WA before settling in the Heath Ledger Theatre of the State Theatre Centre for a four-week run.
A co-production with the Sydney Theatre Company, Signs of Life will finish off with an audience in the Sydney Opera House. “It’s funny,” Winton says, with a disbelieving chuckle. “It’s nice Albany gets a look-in before the Opera House.”
Given some 40,000 people saw Rising Water, expectations are high, but it could also be argued that the play is in safe hands.
Bringing Signs of Life to the stage is Black Swan artistic director Kate Cherry and a small but impressive cast.
Stage acting veteran Helen Morse heads up the bill as Georgie, with screen and stage star George Shevtsov as Lu.
Award-winning indigenous Australian actors Tom E. Lewis and Pauline Whyman star as the enigmatic siblings who arrive at Georgie’s farm house seeking help – and show little sign of moving on.
“Their culture is fractured because they’re basically inheritors of the Stolen Generation, where links to family and links to land and links to language have all been broken up, so in a sense they’re lost,” Winton explains.
“In a way, it’s essentially three lost people sitting on one veranda trying to figure out who’s who.”
The problem, he says, comes from Georgie’s uncertainty about her guests. How long does it take someone to outstay their welcome?
Winton agrees the play could act as an analogy for colonisation.
“I’m not interested in writing a preachy play about climate change or a preachy play about race, but those things are definitely prevalent,” he says. “It’s hard to take people out of the context of the times.
It’s very hard to write about personal things without adding in a political element because nobody lives in isolation. Even people who live alone don’t live in isolation in that sense.”
The production sees Winton stray about as far from his usual topic matter as possible.
His affinity for the ocean and all of its life forms is no secret and indeed, much of his work features bodies of water with various levels of significance.
Georgie’s converted olive plantation rests on the dried up banks of the Moore River in a region that hasn’t seen a drop of rain for five years. “There’s an irony for you: a waterless story,” Winton laughs. “Everyone’s just aching for it to rain and listening to the windmills choke away trying to drag up the last remnants of the ground water and everything’s dry; everyone feels a little dried up emotionally.
As part of the “fantastic” cast, Whyman is especially keen to venture from her Melbourne home for a rare WA trip and her first to the Great Southern.
“I’ve not really seen WA much,” she says. “So to read Tim’s play and Dirt Music, you really get a sense of the dry, arid, spiky kind of feeling of the place… I’m looking forward to seeing more of the countryside because Tim’s descriptions of the landscape really draws you in, so I think that’ll get into my bones.”
Winton admits to having finished a third play for release next year and is particularly amazed by recent news that Secrets, a short story he wrote as a young man and included in Scission, his first collection, is being made into a Mexican feature film.
“You just don’t know where life’s going to go,” he laughs. “A feature film getting up in Mexico City. How do you say G’day in Spanish?”
Tim Winton’s Signs of Life runs preview performances tomorrow night at 8pm and on Saturday at 2pm. Tickets are $54.50. Tickets to the official opening on Saturday night at 8pm start at $59.50. Call the Albany Box Office on 9844 5005 for more information.