Jasper Jones and the coming of age tale

From To Kill A Mockingbird to Stranger Things, coming of age stories are a pop cultural constant, and a way to revisit the nostalgia of youth while also processing the darker truths it can obscure. In Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, the State Theatre Company takes on a distinctly Australia entry in the canon. 

“There was a great quote from Craig Silvey that has really become the gem I’ve focused on: ‘As people we become adults, but we don’t all necessarily grow up’,” director Nescha Jelk tells The Adelaide Review. “‘Grow up’ meaning, to take a look at the hard questions and realise things aren’t all peachy and nice. We see Charlie wrestling with that, and the things he knows, things he doesn’t, and what he’s discovering.”

Set in a remote Western Australian town in 1969, Jasper Jones follows bookish 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin as he navigates the wake of a death in the community, and an unlikely bond with the town’s resident youthful outcast, the titular Jasper (played by Elijah Valadian-Wilson in this production). Since its release in 2009 Silvey’s original novel has become a major motion picture, a staple of high school reading lists, and, since 2014, a popular stage production adapted by Kate Mulvany.

Craig Silvey,s Jasper Jones (Allen & Unwin)

“What Kate and Craig have done so beautifully is maintain a light tone on top of actually really heavy material,” Jelk says. “It still honours the dark, but the lightness feels important, to look after the audience in terms of dealing with that content matter.”

For James Smith, who plays 13-year-old protagonist Charlie, life in Corrigan echoes his own childhood in Riverton.  “I understand what it’s like to live in a small town and all the positives, but also the small-town mindset that can come along with it,” Smith says. “There’s a lot of beauty, and some great, idyllic childhood moments, but there is also isolation, whether it’s environmental or societal, like it is with the character of Jasper. Or maybe your town is just 130 kilometres away from Perth.

“Being 13, 14 years old, you’re not an adult, but you’re also not a kid actually, and the world is starting to take on a different shape. We catch three, even four characters in that moment, which comes back to that Silvey quote: it’s about bubbles being burst, and people maturing, and how the stuff that happens in those formative years can stay with you, about trauma and about friendship.”

James Smith as Charlie Bucktin (Photo: Matt Byrne / KOJO)
James Smith as Charlie Bucktin (Photo: Matt Byrne / KOJO)

“Monsters are talked about a lot in this play, from the literal sense where you have a character like ‘Mad Jack Lionel’ who becomes the bogeyman for the kids of the town to the ‘Nedlands Monster’ who’s also mentioned and researched by Charlie,” Jelk says. “It’s trying to grapple with the bad that exists in the world and people that have done bad things; that idea of fear and mythology, and how for some of us that bubble bursts, and we see that some of those monsters aren’t monsters, and things we’re afraid of we don’t need to. But also, discovering things we perhaps should be afraid of.”

Silvey’s novel has often been placed alongside Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, or Harper Lee’s Mockingbird, stories that invite the audience into the naïve gaze of youth, even as they might put together the pieces before our narrator does “Charlie is the guide for the audience, and there’s something about him that creates a safety for the audience; the whole book you’re reading through Charlie’s eyes and likewise through the stage version he’s regularly checking in on us, and reminding us of things we need to look at. And I think that’s really important; we don’t have that fourth wall up there, he keeps poking us, he keeps making us implicit in that – ‘let’s figure this out together’.”

“Yeah that’s the common thread isn’t it?,” Smith says. “There must be something about people that age, where you can explore really complicated ideas like those that are explored in To Kill A Mockingbird, and use the unbiased, formative brain of someone who’s 13, so that the audience member can join with and follow in without the baggage that they have built up over their adult life.

Nescha Jelk (Photo: Thomas McCammon)
Nescha Jelk (Photo: Thomas McCammon)

“[But] it’s also really fun to see kids that age being brave and pushing themselves, maturing and being uncomfortable. Doing some, not adult things, but doing grown up things, and fumbling their way through that is really satisfying and fun; and it should be said that this is fun. And there’s a lot of fun in all these stories, it’s fun to see the kids in Mockingbird get slowly braver with Boo Radley, and it’s similarly satisfying to see these characters knock on Mad Jack Lionel’s door.

“You do have to do some of those things to figure it out for yourself anyway; even if you know that you shouldn’t hang out with Jasper Jones, once you do you realise it’s not actually like everybody’s been saying, and you can make up your own mind.”

Jasper Jones
Dunstan Playhouse
August 16 – 7

Header image:
Elijah Valadian-Wilson as Jasper Jones (Photo: Sia Duff)

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