180: Cloudstreet

31 Oct

Tim Winton’s classic Australian novel Cloudstreet is one of my favourite books ever. I saw Nick Enright and Justin Monjo’s adaptation for the stage in 2001 and it was five hours of theatrical brilliance. So it was with a little trepidation that I read the playscript: not just because I was messing with precious memories, but because a five-hour play is a long read.


Cloudstreet wasn’t read in a day (it’s taken quite a few bus trips and waiting rooms to complete) but was savoured and enjoyed immensely.

The book and play are both epic in scale, following the sometimes magical, sometimes dreadful events in the lives of two families who end up living together under the one roof. The Lambs are innocent and joy-filled Christians until the death and resurrection of their favourite son, Fish. Fish drowns in a fishing accident and is resuscitated by his mother, only for the family to discover his brain has been damaged and he’s not the same beautiful boy they all adored.

The Pickles are a miserable bunch. Dad is a gambler with a longer losing streak than theMurray Riverand Mum is the sort of alcoholic who’ll sleep with anyone except her husband. Their daughter Rose holds the family together and starves herself.

I adored the way the playwrights managed to keep so much of Winton’s gorgeous prose in the script and was intrigued by the way they used third person direct address as a method for using some of the more poetic language. (I’m trying it in the new play I’m writing at the moment and it’s a liberating device.) Here’s an example which highlights the way it moves the action forward and gives the audience the sort of insight to a character’s thinking you normally only get from a novel.

ROSE: Rose’s dad, Sam Pickles, believes in luck, though he never says the word. He calls it the Shifty Shadow of God. And you never know which way it’s going to fall. Rose has never felt the shadow the way she did today. She knew something bad was going to happen, something really bad, but she never thought the shadow would make her father lose his fingers working on a barge loaded with birdshit.

DOLLY: How is he?

ROSE: Four fingers and the top of his thumb.

DOLLY: The sister told me. His right hand?

ROSE: Yup. He caught it in the winch.

DOLLY: His bloody working hand. A man can hardly pick his nose with a thumb and half a pointer. Well, we’re done, kids, we’re cactus. Thank you, Lady Luck, you rotten slut.

While the book and the production both had me spell bound, reading the play was a different experience. I was surprised to find almost the entire third act felt redundant. The play’s journey seems to be about getting Quick Lamb and Rose Pickles together, which occurs at the end of the second act. The third act has to introduce a new conflict, which comes from a murderous outside force: the Nedlands Monster, to keep our interest. While there are personal resolutions for many of the characters and Fish is finally set free, it really felt like an Act too many.

Third Act notwithstanding, Cloudstreet is still a beautiful and gorgeous play, just as it is a book. It’s the sort of theatre that reignites a sense of wonder in even the most jaded of theatre goers.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 8M, 6F (lots of doubling)

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