BWW Review: JASPER JONES at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Tuesday 20th August 2019.
The State Theatre Company of South Australia's latest production, Jasper Jones, incisively directed by Nescha Jelk, is a dark piece, set against the background of the White Australia Policy, and the Vietnam War. It covers everything from racial prejudice and violence, to suicide, police brutality, dysfunctional family life, extramarital affairs, school bullying, and more.
Craig Silvey's 2009 novel, Jasper Jones, adapted by Kate Mulvany, takes us back to the summer of 1965. Charlie Bucktin is thirteen, and would rather be alone with a book than with other people in the rural Western Australian town of Corrigan. Jasper Jones, who is a year older and to whom he has never spoken, visits him one night, seeking help. A young girl, Laura Wishart, Jasper's only real friend, has been severely beaten and hung from a tree and, as he is of Aboriginal descent, Jasper knows that he will be the first to be suspected by the racially prejudiced white townsfolk, as he is always accused of being the culprit for anything that happens in the town. To save Jasper from the police and the prejudiced white citizens, they weigh down her body and drop her into a dam, leaving everybody to think that she has vanished or run away.
In spite of the title, Jasper Jones makes only a few appearances, with narrator/storyteller, Charlie, being the central character, on stage for the entire play. James Smith plays Charlie in an exceptional performance, showing all of the complexities of a quiet, unadventurous boy suddenly thrown into a situation that even most adults would find hard to cope with.
Elijah Valadian-Wilson plays Jasper giving a sterling performance as the towns scapegoat and whipping boy, wise beyond his years and strong in the face of adversity. He displays all of the agony of having everybody against him for little reason other than their prejudice.
Charlie's best friend, and cricket fanatic, Jeffrey Lu, whose parents were born in Vietnam, is played by Roy Phung, adding much-needed light relief, and some well-timed comedy, to the play, but still turning on some serious, poignant moments when the impact of the Vietnam war comes to his family.
Laura, and her younger sister, Eliza, Charlie's love interest, are both portrayed by Rachel Burke, the former as an ethereal figure wandering the forest, haunting Charlie's dreams, the latter as a wonderfully naïve and lively young girl.
Charlie's parents are played by Emma Beech and Rory Walker, he continually secluding himself in his study, and she doling out punishment to Charlie and spending her evenings 'playing bridge', a pseudonym for having an affair. Beech also plays Warwick Trent, the schoolboy who has had to repeat several years of schooling and who bullies Charlie, and Walker also plays 'Mad Jack', a recluse who is rumoured to be a murderer, whose peaches the children try to steal as a sign of bravery, and who has a long-kept secret. The experience of these two is unmistakable.
Designer, Ailsa Paterson, has created a superbly evocative raised section of forest above the edge of the dam, the lower section of the stage also serving as various locations in the town, with sections of set trucked in and out as needed, and Lighting Designer, Nigel Levings, has created an equally inventive lighting plot to complement the set.
The whole thing is a powerful cry for equality and comes at a time when our government, and others, are trying to divide the people of Australia on race, sexuality, religious beliefs and non-beliefs, and economic and social status, and to change laws and legislation to make inequality, prejudice, and bigotry legal. Be sure to see this moving performance.
Photography: Kate Pardey