Theatre Review: Signs of Life
by Tim Winton
Black Swan Theatre Company/Sydney Theatre Company
Heath Ledger Theatre
In Tim Winton's Signs of Life we are re-introduced to two of the central characters in his 2002 novel, Dirt Music: Georgie Jutland (Helen Morse), who escapes from dress circle Perth and then from the boss cocky fisherman she'd taken up with; and Luther Fox (George Shevtsov) the craypot poacher and ne'er-do-well she absconds with.
It's now 20 years later - the play is set in the near future - but, six weeks ago, Lu fell from an olive tree and died. His memory, though, remains alive for Georgie.
The Moore River runs through the play like it does the property. It hasn't rained for five years, and everything - the riverbed, the olive trees, the birds, the wild dogs and Georgie herself - are dry as bone dust. Georgie is suffering from solastalgia, the syndrome identified by Murdoch University professor Glenn Albrecht where environmental change robs a person of the comfort they derive from their long-established surroundings.
In the parched future of Winton's vision, it's a condition we'd better get used to. As we endure a terribly dry Perth winter, it's easy to empathise when a character says: "I don't think it will ever rain. This is it. The end."
In the night, a car breaks down outside the homestead, and Georgie finds herself with two uninvited guests, the Aboriginal dog shooter Bender (Tom E. Lewis) and his sister Mona (Pauline Whyman). Mona is on the run from a psychiatric institution, but older and deeper things have drawn them to the property.
Bender is suffering from a dissociation of his own. He knows no heritage. His country is the back seat of a car. When Georgie quizzes him about his origins, he is evasive and uncomfortable. He longs for a past he doesn't have. At the heart of Mona's damage is a horrific loss of her own. These are sorrowful ideas, movingly expressed in the play.
Georgie, Bender and Mona reach towards understanding, and in the play's pivotal, and best, scene, down by the withered river, they come to an apotheosis of sorts.
The great strengths of Signs of Life are these themes - change, longing, loss, damage and healing.
Its weaknesses, though, are stark. Even the most gifted writers don't always succeed as playwrights and Winton's text is shot through with devices that simply do not work as stage dialogue. When Georgie describes something as "ugly - like a junkie's blue-faced overdose" the line sinks like lead.
Neither does what passes between the characters consistently ring true. We are told the siblings' arrival poses a threat to Georgie, but Lewis' Bender is an amiable, undaunting figure and Mona, while disturbed, seems easily managed and docile. When Georgie vents her frustration at their presence, it's hard to see what uncorks her anger and tension.
Matters aren't helped by Zoe Atkinson's flat, shallow set, with its vast field of white veined with red that looks disconcertingly like strawberry ripple ice cream. If we are meant to read something into it, it's a metaphor we might have been spared.
Director Kate Cherry has assembled a distinguished cast, but she, and they, all labour under the heft of the dialogue and staging which too often seems to force the actors' focus past each other and out into the auditorium.
There is much in Signs of Life that is well worth telling, but in some other way or in another medium better suited for its purposes.