Jasper Jones, which begins at the Sumner on 1 August, will be, unusually, the third separate production of the play within as many years. This is almost unheard of in Australian theatre. Sometimes a new Australian play will receive a production which travels from one theatre company to another, but it’s rare for a play to receive three fresh productions in succession. Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Craig Silvey’s popular novel was originally commissioned and performed by West Australian company Barking Gecko in 2014. Earlier this year, Belvoir mounted a successful new production, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, and now Sam Strong directs the play anew for MTC. Mulvany, who also appeared in the Belvoir production, is delighted that the play has had a vigorous afterlife.
‘I have been completely lucky,’ she says. ‘And I think it should definitely happen more often. Speaking as a playwright, when you spend three to four years writing a new Australian play, I hate that you get just three to four weeks on stage and then it’s gone. The play more or less disappears from view. I feel at last the tide is changing a little. It’s great that major companies are putting money into plays which have already had so much work put into them.’
Mulvany’s luck began the moment a few years ago when Barking Gecko’s Artistic Director John Sheedy put the novel in her hands and asked, ‘Have you read this?’ As a matter of fact, she had. Sheedy told her he had the rights to it and asked whether she wanted to adapt it for him.
‘It was just like being given a great big chuck of gold. It was gorgeous. Like a jewel just placed in my hand. Though I knew I had a tough task ahead, because it was such a well-loved book. Such a part of Australian literary history. So I was scared but also excited to take it on.’
Published in 2009, Jasper Jones, Silvey’s second novel, became something of an instant classic. It’s a coming-ofage story with broad appeal. Although it has become a popular set text for high school English, it is also the young adult novel that many older adults love to read. Many have likened its open, tough, touching story to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It deals with similar subject matter: a death in a small town and its unfolding consequences as seen from the young protagonist’s point of view.
‘What frightened me was it had so much in it,’ Mulvany says. ‘It covers so much ground. It talks about racism and sexism, the Vietnam War and refugees, domestic violence and abuse; it has these set pieces about super heroes and cricket, which people love. It was a big task to take on.’
Barking Gecko specialises in theatre for young people, so her original script dealt with all those difficult issues with a teenage audience in mind. Mulvany pulled back on the more graphic scenes, while making connections between events a little more explicit. When Belvoir picked up the play, she rewrote passages to toughen it up for an adult audience. But she doesn’t think she went far enough.
‘So with the MTC production coming up, with Sam’s blessing, I asked whether we could make it even a bit more adult, hard hitting, so that the funny moments would be funnier and the darker moments a little darker. Some of it was just fine-tuning it for a bigger space at the Sumner and a bigger theatrical audience.’
At every stage during the original writing and during every rewrite since, Mulvany kept in contact with Craig Silvey, who lives in Fremantle and has been supportive of all her artistic choices. Consultation is important to Mulvany, because it will always remain Silvey’s story. ‘It came from
his brain, his heart and his gut. It’s the least I can do to keep him in the loop. But he was also incredibly generous. He said right off, “Do what you need to do.”’
She made changes, some substantial, but always reluctantly and always with his blessing. ‘I wanted to keep as true to the book as possible,’ she says, ‘but the thing that bothered me was that the female characters were underwritten. I suppose, because we’re seeing everything through thirteen year-old boy’s eyes. When I brought that up with Craig – very delicately – he said, “I agree, I agree. Go for it. Flesh them out.”’
An adaption is never an act of pure translation from one medium to another, Mulvany believes. The adapter can’t help but put herself into the play. As far as possible she kept Silvey’s lines – ‘he has such a rich, evocative turn of phrase’ – but all the time she drew from her own upbringing in a small West Australian town, not too different from the Silvey’s fictional mining town of Corrigan.
‘A lot of the characters use words and lines from my own history,’ she says. ‘It’s important as an adapter to put your own self into it as well. The beating heart of it is still Craig Silvey’s amazing story. This is his book on stage. But it’s also important ultimately for it to be a Kate Mulvany play.’
Jasper Jones based on the novel by Craig Silvey, adapted by Kate Mulvany, plays at the Sumner from 1 August to 9 September.
Jasper Jones is presented with the support of Production Partner Goldman Sachs.