Cloudstreet review (Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide)

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Five years and multiple workshops in the making – the first of them ‘self-funded’ by director Gale Edwards and composer George Palmer – the opera of Tim Winton’s beloved Cloudstreet finally arrives, heaving and shuddering like that famous weatherboard house at number one Cloud Street, on the stage.

There is, poll after poll has told us, no Australian novel more admired by readers in this country, and it has already been the subject of a widely acclaimed play and television miniseries. That it’s a nostalgic, big-hearted book populated by larrikins, misfits and battlers – in other words, the kinds of people we imagine, with a sort of sucked-in national pride, ourselves to be – goes some way to explaining its enduring popularity. But it’s also a strange book, flecked with the gothic and the supernatural, and infused with a Joycean modernism that, doing away with speech marks, and shifting rapidly between tenses, creates what poet Les Murray has called an ‘interleaved continuing plane’.

The story of two ill-matched working class families (‘squared off at one another like opposing platoons’), the industrious Lambs and the errant Pickles, each occupying one half of the same ramshackle house, the novel straddles physical and metaphysical worlds, Winton’s earthy depiction of mid-century Perth jostling with a hidden, spiritual realm, all overseen by an omniscient narrator, the roaming life-force of intellectually disabled Lamb boy Fish (Nicholas Jones).

The continuous nature of Winton’s novel is preserved, Edwards employing a revolve that, in combination with Palmer’s unbroken score, smartly reproduces the book’s ecstatic flood of colour and movement.

Cloudstreet, the opera (early publicity saw the name followed by an exclamation mark, a convention that has now sensibly been dropped) is alert to these dualities but layers them thinly, seamlessly. There is, for example, no obvious split in Victoria Lamb’s set design – no sprawling, bicameral façade, just a series of flats with the cobbled-together look of an old, weather-beaten house or boardwalk.

Instead, the continuous nature of Winton’s novel is preserved, Edwards employing a revolve that, in combination with Palmer’s unbroken score, smartly reproduces the book’s ecstatic flood of colour and movement. Craig Williams’ video design, amongst the most smoothly integrated I’ve seen for some time, is similarly dexterous, alternating between gorgeous watercolour washes and nightmarish projections of Fish’s near-drowning and the unquiet ghosts of three indigenous girls (Lilla Berry, Natasha Wangerneen, and Kirsty Williams) – former Cloud Street occupants who were forced into becoming ladies’ maids – trapped, as though behind an impenetrable pane of glass, between two worlds.

Not all of Cloudstreet’s contrasts prove as fertile, however. Take, for instance, Palmer’s score, which eschews the dissonant flavours of modernist opera for a tonal, melodic style, often sentimental apropos the popular, whistleable music of the era. No bad thing in itself – after all, it’s difficult to see Winton’s hardy, unaffected Lambs and Pickles singing in the fashion of a Philip Glass or John Adams opera – but there are times when Cloudstreet sounds unerringly like a musical, in the Les Misérables tradition let’s say, trying to burst out from under a cloud (or should that be corset?) of pomp.

With its score’s charming, true-to-the-period vaudevillian inflections, it’s not hard to imagine a chamber-sized Cloudstreet, either, with a big-hatted pianist banging away on an old upright piano in the corner. Instead, for the time being, we have the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and I suppose they’re as epic sounding as you could want.

Whatever one makes of Cloudstreet’s stylistic slippages – and in the end I don’t think they matter all that much, except as pointers to some tantalising what-could-have-beens – the medium of opera undoubtedly magnifies the novel’s tragic and romantic dimensions, eliding much of its humour and irreverence.

On opening night, it was a full 20 minutes before the first belly laughs came. Palmer’s libretto – maybe necessarily, maybe not – vulgarises Winton’s novel to some extent, flattening out the families’ vocal eccentricities and substituting Fish’s dynamic narration for abject clichés. Happily, Australian accents are retained at all times – those big, drawn out vowels cutting through the music like a knife – and enough piquant colloquialisms make it onto the stage to give at least a sense of Winton’s great facility for the national vernacular’s roiling corruptions.

Less satisfactory is the opera’s compression of time, necessary on account of the novel’s sprawl but not always ably managed by Palmer or Edwards. Everybody will take issue with different excisions but, for me, the virtual erasure of the ‘knife that never lies’ – the game of luck that Fish and others play repeatedly throughout the book – and the complete expurgation of the ‘Nedlands Monster’ subplot drain two of the novel’s central themes: the role of luck in our lives (‘is this all there is to it? Just chance, luck, the spin of the knife?’), and the loss of innocence.

That’s this novel, and opera, all over – two worlds in perpetual, abrading motion like tectonic plates, sometimes pressing up exquisite new formations, sometimes not.

Despite Ailsa Paterson’s progressive costume design (though always blue for the Lambs, and red for the Pickles) the opera’s chronology is indistinct and uneven, years sometimes seemingly elapsing between scenes with little signaling. That Edward’s direction is occasionally muddled – for example, at the conclusion of Act Two during the Guy Fawkes night scene – is, I think, both a cause and a consequence of this confusion although, to be fair, Winton’s ‘slab of a book’ was always going to be an easier fit for a TV series (and even, as it turned out, the much longer play) than a three-hour opera.

As you’d expect, the performances on opening night were raw but far from ropey. Only bass Pelham Andrews, as Lester Lamb, failed to satisfy, a shade too young to convince as father of Quick – brilliantly portrayed by Nicholas Cannon – and vocally monotonous. As the Romeo and Juliet-style lovers Quick and Rose, more foregrounded here than in the novel, Cannon and the relatively inexperienced Desiree Frahn are splendid, even if their two duets produce a certain, presumably unintended disharmony. But I guess that’s this novel, and opera, all over – two worlds in perpetual, abrading motion like tectonic plates, sometimes pressing up exquisite new formations, sometimes not.

Cloudstreet is at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide until 21 May. Image by Accent Photography

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