By Greg Gould
Following a sold-out and acclaimed run of Pride and Prejudice in June, local indie theatre company Budding Theatre is back with another literary adaptation — the modern Australian classic, Jasper Jones.
Set in a remote Western Australian town in the 1960s, Jasper Jones tells the story of Charlie Bucktin, a bookish 13-year-old whose life is changed forever when fellow outsider and local ‘bad boy’ Jasper Jones knocks on his window and asks for help solving a murder.
Given the colour of his skin, Jasper knows he’ll be the prime suspect. His only hope is that the two boys can solve the mystery before the cops do.
Based on the acclaimed 2009 novel by Craig Silvey and adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Kate Mulvany, the play explores the fragility of people dealing with racism, isolation, and the severity of living in remote Australia.
For director Glynis Stokes, the play’s examination of the dark side of adolescence makes it a story that needs to be told.
“It takes an alternative perspective on the idea of growing up. A lot of coming of age stories focus on romance and the more light-hearted aspects of it. They don’t have the same kind of undertones that Jasper Jones has. It addresses more realistic issues like suicide and abuse and racial abuse — the sort of things which really don’t get looked at enough.”
To give the play’s brooding undertones more impact, Stokes decided to buck the trend of casting adult actors as teenagers — as was the case in productions by the Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies. Instead, she has chosen to cast younger performers in roles closer to their real-life ages.
“We’ve gone with a younger cast, so all of the teenagers are actually teenagers. I think it adds another dimension. When these sorts of stories are happening to children it has a different perspective to it, as opposed to watching people in their 20s pretending to be teenagers.”
However, while finding age-accurate actors for the two lead roles was relatively easy, finding a young Indigenous actor for the titular role of Jasper proved unexpectedly difficult.
The irony of the predicament isn't lost on Stokes.
“Unfortunately, the Canberra theatre scene is not hugely diverse, especially in the younger age range,” Stokes said.
She also points out that a lack of roles written specifically for non-white actors also contributes to under representation on local stages.
“You look at all the shows that are being done and you’ve got Legally Blonde, Pride and Prejudice, The Art of Coarse Acting. None of them has diversity written into the play. Jasper Jones is all about diversity and prejudice, so it was really important to have the right people in each role to stay true to the story.”
Despite the play’s darker mood, Stokes promises audiences will be treated to a good dose of levity and tenderness — all with a very Australian flavour. This includes a few domestic cricket scenes thrown into the mix.
“We don’t actually use a ball — we don’t want someone in the audience being taken out. But the energy and the commitment of the kids is so beautiful to watch. It’s just kids enjoying themselves. It’s like going back and being ten again and playing cricket on the street and having mum cheer you on. It’s these moments of joy that really remind the audience that there are always times of happiness, even in darker times.”
Jasper Jones is at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre from 2 – 5 October. Bookings through canberratheatrecentre.com.au