Review: Signs of Life


Tim Winton has over the last twenty years engraved himself into our culture. He arose out of the waves of Western Australia and has risen all the way to Living National Treasure. A superb and unique author.

It is only recently that he has turned his pen to playwriting, “Signs of Life” is his second play after last years “Rising Water”. It is a co-production of the Sydney Theatre Company and the Black Swan State Theatre Company from Perth.

“Signs of Life” is unmistakably a Winton work, it’s concerned with place, identity and belonging. It reminded me strongly of the English “kitchen sink” dramas of the sixties, it felt as if you came into an ongoing story at some random moment and left it the same way while in between you saw lives unfolding with all the difficulties and pasts that life holds. It is a somewhat sequel to his novel “Dirt Music” which I must admit to never having read. That may have to change.

Heather Mitchell, Pauline Whyman and Aaron Pederson do a marvellous job supported by George Shevstov. The men have a difficult job in this play as neither character feels really central and well developed, it is the two women who carry the play forward while the men have roles that are more explanatory and narrative. Pederson, in particular, has a difficult job as he and Mitchell have most of the dialogue while he shows only a little of himself and little variation in character. When his character shows it is important, large to him and so subtle. He is, in a word, superb. Shevstov looks right, an ageing hippy, but somehow never seemed right to me.

The set, by Zoe Atkinson, was excellent. It embodied the pale washed out farmhouse and blended it into a large tree and landscape. The lighting was dramatic in the beginning, the play opens with Mitchell lit by car headlights isolated in one corner of the dark set but then faded into simplicity that just changed in intensity and colour at various times of the “day”. The design and direction were good.

Sorry, but I’m not going to tell you anything about the story or the characters, heck I haven’t even named them. This isn’t that kind of review and it feels wrong to talk of them. Go and see it.

I’m sure that there are some who will not enjoy this play, it lacks a real climax and certainly has no denouement. The play just moves along almost stumbling from scene to scene, meditating on it’s themes rather than dramatising them. The other difficulty you may have is the language is unmistakably Winton’s, it is the language of novelist rather than a playwright. The two taken together, the style and the language, seemed to me somehow to work.

I loved it, the slow unfolding of three lives with their history and problems had me glued to my seat for the entire 80 or 90 minutes. It was great theatre and when you pays your money and takes your seat do you wish for anything more?

(I’m sorry that this review does not have a nice picture from the production at the top but the Sydney Theatre Company does not give out a press kit to anybody but “media”. You need a media logon to get one. Silly decision but there it goes.)

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