Celebration of transformation

Stephen Carleton on a multimedia realisation of Johnno

Johnno

Johnno

Johnno

In the opening moments of Johnno, the actors form a gymnastics team chorus line and pass Dante (Sean Mee) a copy of the 1949 Brisbane Grammar School magazine like a lifeline, tethering him to the smothering uniformity of his youth and his home town. A Box Brownie camera flash goes off, and we see the class of 49 in heroic salute, with Dante’s anarchic mate Johnno (Paul Denny) sneaking into the shot in disguise. This incendiary gag is a formative moment of defiance and subversion: he is laughing in the face of staid, conformist Brisbane at the turn of that most staid and conformist decade, the 1950s. As he goes on to say, the Brisbane of Johhno and Dante’s childhood is “too mediocre even to be a suburb of hell.” Malouf, and adaptor-director Stephen Edwards, are quick to point out that this postwar malaise is not Brisbane’s alone. This is the Australia of the 1950s that the novel’s heroes must escape, much as the artist Roy Child, say, must escape Sydney in Patrick White’s A Season at Sarsaparilla. Johnno is the quintessential literary Brisbane novel, but as a parable of its time, it says as much about the nation as it does about its dull subtropical capital.

In Stephen Edwards and the UK’s Derby Playhouse, La Boite Theatre Company have found theatrical soulmates. They have been liberated from the confines of their theatre-in-the-round home, and taken flight—not just literally, to the UK (like the novel’s protagonist, Dante), but figuratively too, into an imagist theatre of body, metaphor and symbol.

The physical use of the chorus of actors from both companies is compelling from the outset. Dressed in dirty working class greys and blues the ensemble enact the abstract images with which this most prosaic of novels challenges the adaptor throughout. They become the pimps and prostitutes of underworld Brisbane and Paris, the fellow drinkers in the West End Greek Club or Pig and Whistle café. They also take us on the metaphoric—and metaphysical—journey through Dante’s (Odyssean) escape from Hell and back again. They carry Dante through the cafes of Left Bank Paris, help him clamber to the top of the Victoria Bridge as the Brisbane River in flood courses beneath, ensuring he never sets foot in the rich chaotic life through which Johnno swims and splashes, and flounders.

Both actors and set are immersed in water in Dan Potra’s arresting design evoking a Brisbane of the past that used to flood regularly, but has now been technologically prevented from doing so.

Entrenched as the city presently is in seemingly permanent drought, choked of water for all but the most essential of daily needs, the excess and inundation seems especially nostalgic. Matt McKenzie’s sound design and Elena Kats-Chernin’s score are exquisite, and do much to invoke the intelligent reverence that Malouf’s novel inspires. Johnno was never a glib satiric thumbing of the nose at Old Brisbane. It was an earnest, even affectionate, exploration of suburban torpor. As Dante states upon Johnno’s return to his old home, “so much of the old Brisbane was gone, there was nothing left to hate.” The aching uniformity was at least grist for the mill. John Rayment’s lighting and Craig Walsh’s visual design especially seem to sum up this conundrum. The 3-pronged crane that swirls around the action decked with scrims that are lit by projections of the city’s icons seems to encapsulate the imposition of technology over the past and convey the supplanting of weatherboard with iron and steel.

This is a mesmerising and truly transporting piece of theatre. If not quite reaching the dizzy theatrical heights of its obvious aspirational forbear, Cloudstreet, it did at least occur to me sitting in the transfixed, well-heeled and suitably urbane audience that the days of Brisbane’s me-too complex might be nearly over. With theatre like this, telling coming-of-age Brisbane stories in a festival that is itself passing from adolescence to adulthood, it might finally be time to accept that we’ve grown up.

Johnno, adaptor-director Stephen Edwards, Derby Playhouse & La Boite Theatre Company, Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane Festival, July 14-Aug 5

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 10

© Stephen Carleton; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2006