Of all Tim Winton’s novels, Cloudstreet is the one that has become most deeply embedded in Australian culture since it was published in 1991. The story of two families living in one big old Perth house between the wars, its flawed characters, tragedy and triumph resonate with many of us. Perhaps its the unmistakable Australianness, including the old-fashioned vernacular and the ancient, otherworldly force that emanates from the land, and especially from the Swan River gliding through it. It’s a force these white families can barely grasp.

Guy Simon, Benjamin Oakes, Alison Whyte, Ebony McGuire, Arielle Gray and Mikayla Merks. Photograph © Pia Johnson

As well as becoming a television mini-series, Cloudstreet was adapted for the stage 20 years ago by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo, whose screenplay has been tweaked for this revival season. Five hours long, including intervals, it’s being presented as an epic single day or night journey of Wagnerian proportions, and also in two parts over consecutive days (which was how I experienced Cloudstreet).

Credit to the director, Malthouse Theatre’s Artistic Director Matthew Lutton, who has wrestled this sprawling, elusive work like few could. He keeps the pace tight – scene after scene are often on the verge of merging, and sometimes do – and demonstrates a clear vision that almost captures Cloudstreet’s slippery subtext and magical realist elements.

This production’s tweaks include brief but urgent additions in the Indigenous Noongar language. It heightens 1 Cloud Street’s dark past as a place where Stolen Generation girls were kept against their will, and also emphasises First Nations peoples’ profound connection to country – that otherworldly force the Pickles and Lamb families can hardly sense let alone understand.

Lutton has also cast several Indigenous actors, as well as a neuroatypical actor in the role of Fish Lamb, the boy whose near-drowning causes brain damage. Of all the characters, he has by far the strongest sense of what we might call the ghosts of the Indigenous girls incarcerated in the house.

This production of Cloudstreet puts text and performance to the fore – a huge demand on a cast loaded with dialogue, narrative and expositional passages lifted from Winton’s novel, that urgent pacing and, for the supporting players, many, many transitions between minor characters.

Zoë Atkinson’s stark set gives them little to work with but each other: three blue-grey walls, with a few rough black outlines of human figures, suggesting those ill-fated girls as well as the Hiroshima victims who are part of Quick Lamb’s morbid obsession with evil. Several additional partition walls repeatedly slide in and out diagonally, creating space and also hiding the logistics of rapid scene transitions.

Benjamin Oakes, Guy Simon and Ian Michael. Photograph © Pia Johnson

It’s a dull set, except during the handful of scenes when water silently rises up from beneath the floorboards, flooding the stage like a thin sheet of shiny black ink. This is the nearest Cloudstreet comes to conveying the novel’s magical realism, but even at its best, when Fish and Quick are in a rowboat, wondering if the water and night sky are one, it’s more gloomy than magic. Except for dramatic blackouts and ethereal ripple effects reflected off the flooded stage that appear to be enhanced by projections, Paul Jackson’s lighting design is also subdued.

A mix of harsh effects in conjunction with the blackouts, snatches of popular post-war songs and lots of clear, beautifully evocative native bird calls, J. David Franzke’s sound design creates atmosphere, but in an almost incessant, sometimes unsubtle way. It’s at odds with the excessive restraint of Jackson and Atkinson, who also designed costumes that are necessarily dreary except for flashy Dolly Pickles’ colourful frocks and silky dressing gown.

Natasha Herbert’s Dolly is a performance highlight. Initially rather a caricature of a middle-aged alcoholic serial adulterer, her interpretation evolves and deepens with the character’s disintegration. As the play’s other matriarch, the practical, intractable Oriel Lamb, Alison Whyte is even more compelling as she slowly reveals the complexities of a difficult, subtle character.

The patriarchs are also chalk and cheese: Bert Labonté’s Sam Pickles is an intriguing study of being laidback to a fault and simultaneously obsessed with good and bad luck. Greg Stone plays well meaning Lester Lamb with endearing energy and a bruised but hopeful joy.

Bert LaBonté and Natasha Herbert. Photograph © Pia Johnson

While most of their many children are interpreted by supporting cast members who constantly slip between characters, three of them are central enough to warrant actors dedicated to their roles. Brenna Harding convincingly portrays Rose Pickles’ transition from an unhappy girl who feels trapped at Cloud Street to a woman finding her way beyond its walls.

Guy Simon is a tense Quick Lamb, but shows a little softness in scenes with Fish, who is played by Benjamin Oakes. An actor on the Autism spectrum, his casting is appropriate for the intellectually disabled Fish, but he also embodies the character’s playfulness and vulnerability in a way neurotypical actors probably couldn’t.

This is an ambitious theatrical dive into the Australian psyche that’s intriguing, even moving, but ultimately it struggles with the novel’s epic complexity and mystery. Perhaps Cloudstreet can only be satisfactorily realised in the literary imagination.

Cloudstreet plays at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne, until June 16

Refer a friend