By Joseph Hurley
CLOUDSTREET, adapted by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo. From the Tim Winton novel. Directed by Neil Armfield. At the 2001 New Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Precisely when the city’s theatergoing audiences could have made good use of a life-affirming production capable of reminding them of the essential kindness and reasonability of much of the human race, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in conjunction with theaters from two major Australian cities, Sydney’s Company B Belvoir and Perth’s Black Swan, provided one.
It was the five-hour-plus staging of “Cloudstreet,” adapted from an early novel by the Irish-Australian writer, Tim Winton. The 41-year-old novelist has spent much of his writing life in Ireland, where “The Riders,” published in 1997 and widely thought to be among the best of Winton’s 18 books, was written, and where its story takes place.
The trouble with the six-performance visit “Cloudstreet” made to BAM’s Harvey Theater earlier this month was that, owing to relatively little publicity and the generally depressed theatrical climate, relatively few people saw it. Audiences built as the engagement’s single week went on, and the two or three final performances last weekend were virtually sold out, but the earlier shows drew spotty houses, which is a pity, because the production was a memorable event and deserved to be seen by as many people as possible.
Published in 1991, “Cloudstreet” was both a distinct critical and commercial success from the start, and has remained on Australia’s list of best-sellers almost continuously since it first appeared.
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Winton was born in 1960 in Perth, the capital of the remote state of Western Australia, and it’s in that city that “Cloudstreet” is laid, taking place over the course of the 1940s and ’50s.
“Cloudstreet,” nimbly adapted for the stage by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo, deals with two families, whimsically named the Pickleses and the Lambs. Unlike Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets, the warring tribes of “Romeo and Juliet,” Winton’s people could never be described as “two houses, both alike in dignity.”
In fact, because of their straitened economic situation, they’ve come to occupy a single dwelling, the huge, battered old place at No. 1 Cloud Street, a rundown mansion inherited by the Pickles family shortly after their father, Sam, an inveterate gambler, has suffered the loss of several fingers in an industrial accident, a mutilation that has limited his ability to work.
The Lambs have come to Perth with their six children after a near-drowning incident in the country town that had been their home has left their favorite son, Fish, irreversibly brain-damaged.
The Pickleses and the Lambs couldn’t possibly be more different. Dolly Pickles is something of a bawd, as improvident in her way as her husband, Sam, is. The Lambs, on the other hand, are religious in the extreme, to the point of being casual adherents to the tenets of a fundamentalist cult.
Lester Lamb, the family’s father, is a baker and intends to open a candy shop in the city, aided and abetted by his pious, uncomplaining wife, Rose.
Despite their obvious differences, the two clans decide to share the hulking house in an unfashionable area of Perth, since Sam Pickles views the naive, aptly named Lambs as a potential solution to at least some of his ongoing financial woes.
Adaptors Enright and Monjo have come up with a surprisingly graceful, fast-moving and exceedingly humane juggernaut of a script, a behemoth requiring 15 actors playing 40 roles in more than 100 scenes to tell the story.
The obvious comparison to “Cloudstreet” is the two-part adaptation of Charles Dickens’s “Nicholas Nickleby” with which Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company scored a vast success on both sides of the Atlantic nearly two decades ago.
“Cloudstreet,” however, lingers in the mind as a vast, compassionate human canvas, while the hugely enjoyable “Nickleby” was, at its heart, something of a cartoon, which the Australian offering never is, even in its frequent moments of raucous comedy.
Performed on a stage floor composed of raw, wooden planks, set in a sea of sand, “Cloudstreet” moves swiftly, as a series of modest set pieces, beds, chairs, tables and so forth, are rolled swiftly on and off, meeting the demands of the text.
Director Neil Armfield, the artistic director of Company B, has kept things moving at an admirable pace, without ever losing sight of the story’s more delicate dimensions.
“Cloudstreet” has come and gone and, unlike “Nckleby,” seems an unlikely project for any American company to undertake. Brooklyn was part of the show’s third tour, and the first one to include an American booking.
Following its BAM engagement, the company played three performances at Washington’s Kennedy Center and then returned to Australia. In London, where the show played immediately before coming to Brooklyn, the Daily Telegraph critic wrote of feeling “a sharp tug of loss when this lovely production came to an end.”
It’s a genuine shame that more New Yorkers didn’t manage to share this remarkable experience and feel that emotional tug. Maybe there will be a movie, or even a TV production that might drift onto Channel 13. And then, it goes without saying, there’s always Tim Winton’s deeply felt, richly healing book.