As the theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s That Eye, The Sky prepares to open for State Theatre Company of South Australia, its co-writer Justin Monjo and director Kate Champion discuss the art of adapting one of Australia’s greatest living novelists.
It’s been more than two decades since Justin Monjo adapted That Eye, The Sky for the stage. Originally from New York City, Monjo studied acting at NIDA and established Burning House Theatre Company with his friend Richard Roxburgh. Together, the pair adapted Winton’s 1986 rural masterpiece with Roxburgh starring and directing a remarkable cast that included Hugo Weaving and David Wenham.
Though That Eye, The Sky was a success for Burning House, the fledgling company was a victim of the success of the talented individuals who made up the troupe as they went on to star on stage and screen.
“We put together a really good little squad, and we just couldn’t keep it together to keep it going,” Monjo says. “We all had careers and it all just fell apart. But we did one show [production] and it was great.”
Monjo left his acting career behind to work as a writer. He has adapted multiple novels and biographies for stage and screen, including Winton’s Cloudstreet, the recent Channel Seven INXS miniseries and the soon-to-be-released Storm Boy remake. The 55-year-old is also responsible for writing 14 episodes of the cult sci-fi series Farscape and the recent Daniel Radcliffe survival flick Jungle.
It was working with Winton to adapt That Eye, The Sky that lead Monjo to adapt Cloudstreet with his previous NIDA teacher Nick Enright. Cloudstreet became a national success and will soon be remounted for production in Melbourne.
“It was such a good experience with Tim, because he just let us do it,” Monjo says of adapting the celebrated Australian author. “He trusted us and had faith and said, ‘Go for it’. He loved the production and so did his agent. We wrote Cloudstreet next and considered doing it with Burning House, but Richard [Roxburgh] didn’t want to do two productions in a row and his acting career was taking off, so it was left to me.”
The story of That Eye, The Sky is a dark one. Told from the perspective of nine-year-old boy Ort, the novel examines his journey into responsibility and adolescence as well as the complicated nature of religion in the bush. Asked how he translated a sombre, sometimes fantastic story to the stage, Monjo says that the nature of theatre did a lot of the work for him.
“There’s some things that theatre does better [than film], and in some of Tim’s stuff, theatre does it better,” he says. “I think with That Eye, The Sky, seeing David Wenham play Ort, a nine-year-old boy, gives you such humour. There’s another level to it, and it really worked.”
The same goes for his adaptation of Cloudstreet, where Monjo says he aimed to let Winton’s story shine through.
“We loved the characters and just tried to tell Tim’s story, and didn’t try to put our slant on it or anything,” he says. “He knows what he’s doing. Just try not to fuck it up, really, is my bottom line…. On the opening night of Cloudstreet, Neil [Armfield] came up to be and said, ‘Justin, Justin – we’re doing five hours of theatre and all we tell them at the end is that there is no us and them in the world and there’s just us – is that enough?’. I laughed and said, ‘Well it better be. That’s all we got.’”
The State Theatre Company production of That Eye, The Sky will be directed by Kate Champion, who was artistic director of dance theatre company Force Majeure for 12 years and incidentally worked on Cloudstreet as a choreographer under Neil Armfield. Champion says that since leaving Force Majeure, her focus has come to more text-based theatre, but that this production will have an element of movement to it.
“I always bring my knowledge and deep interest in physical language to everything I create,” Champion says. “It certainly won’t be a physical theatre work – it’s a play and I respect that fact. However, I always get the actors I work with to train physically as, even in its most minimal use, such training brings an added depth to all aspects of performance.”
Champion has also, in consultation with Monjo, increased the amount of Ort’s internal monologue in the play’s script to help bring out his naïve internal comedy.
“I’m certainly interested in maintaining Winton’s humour and Ort’s comical musings on events,” she says. “To my mind, the best dark tales maintain a fair share of perceptive humour, otherwise there’d be no light and shade and less access to the more absurd, yet, telling moments in life.”
Champion says this story, like many of Winton’s, retains a timeless nature that Adelaide’s audiences will relate to.
“The play’s themes – the rupturing of a family unit through an unexpected tragic event, the questioning of faith or belief in something beyond what’s scientifically explainable, adolescence and all its accompanying confusion and the often silent suffering of a carer of the sick and elderly – are all subjects that have as much relevance today as ever. They do not belong to a particular era or even culture.”
That Eye, The Sky
Friday, August 24 to Sunday, September 16
Header image: Chris Pitman and Tim Overton in a promotional image for That Eye, The Sky