Monday musings on Australian literature: 5 Australian novels to theatre

Having recently posted on Alana Valentine’s adaptation of Frank Moorehouse’s Cold light, I thought I’d explore other theatrical adaptations of Australian novels, because we tend, when thinking of adaptations, to focus mostly on movies – at least, I think we do.

Now, I haven’t seen many theatrical adaptations of Aussie novels. We get some theatre in my city, but my live performance outings tend to be more dance and music focused, so I’ll be talking here about productions I mostly haven’t seen. There, disclosure done!

Interestingly, I did read an article that bemoaned theatrical directors’ recent focus on adaptations – though the main issue was more about the adaptation of overseas plays (including classics, like Chekhov’s works, et al). The article quotes Andrew Bovell, whom you’ll see mentioned below, on “the rise of adapted plays”:

WRITE your own plays and stop effing around with everybody else’s. It’s lazy. It’s easy. It’s conservative. And it ignores the vibrancy of the contemporary voices that surround you.

Apparently, some of these adapted classics are being called, in some quarters anyhow, “new Australian works”. I’m not going to go there in this post, but do read the article cited above if you’re interested.

Meanwhile, here’s my little set of five original Australian stories adapted to theatre, in chronological order of adaptation…


Tim Winton’s 1991 award-winning novel, Cloudstreet, has seen many adaptations – to radio play (1996), theatre (1998), television miniseries (2010, which I’ve seen), and opera (2016). That gives you a sense of the importance (and reputation) of this novel, even if all the other accolades don’t! The stage adaptation was done by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo, who won an AWGIE Award for their adaptation, and the play was directed by one of Australia’s best-known and most successful theatre directors, Neil Armfield. It has not only been staged in Australia but also in London, Dublin, New York and Washington DC. It received the Helpmann Award for Best Play and for Best Direction of a Play in 2002.

The Guardian’s reviewer, writing of the 2001 London production, had some quibbles with the adaptation, but loved Armfield’s production and likened one particular scene to a John Ford film. He continued:

Ford, of course, directed The Grapes of Wrath, and there is more than a hint of Steinbeck’s earthy realism and epic vision in this unfolding saga. But in the end the show is pure Australian, and one hopes it might do something to erode our patronising ignorance of that country’s drama.

I wonder if it has!

The secret river

The secret River cover

Adapted by one of Australia’s current best-known dramatists, Andrew Bovell, and premiered in 2013, the theatrical version of Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel The secret river was hugely successful, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t organise myself to see it. I did see the later miniseries adaptation, but that doesn’t count in the context of this post. The production was nominated for – and won – several awards in Australia’s main theatre awards, the Helpmann Awards.

Bovell commented on the process of adaptation:

Sometimes the best approach to adapting a novel is simply to get out of the way. This proved to be the case with The Secret River. The novel is much loved, widely read and studied. It has become a classic of Australian literature. My task was simply to allow the story to unfold in a different form. It took me sometime to realise this.

He talks about the contributions to the adaptation made by the play’s director (the aforementioned) Neil Armfield, Bangarra Dance Treatre director Stephen Page, and the Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company which staged the play, Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett. These people are the royalty of Australian theatre so it’s not surprising the play was successful, both critically and at the Box Office!

Storm boy

The oldest novel in my selection this post is Colin Thiele’s 1964 children’s novel Storm boy, which was made into a very successful film in 1976. The play adaptation, however, is far more recent, being premiered in 2013. It was adapted by a writer I don’t know – but I’m no theatre expert – Tom Holloway, whom the play’s director John Sheedy called “one of my favourite Australian playwrights.” Sheedy said Holloway was faithful to Thiele’s story and his style.

For those of you who don’t know, the story is about a boy, whose mother had died, and the pelican he befriends (or, who befriends him). The Canberra Times article (linked above) on the play says this about the pelicans:

The pelicans were crucial to the story and Sheedy said, “For three seconds we thought of bringing real ones in.” But then the decision was made to use puppets, carefully crafted to be the size of real pelicans and operated by two Indigenous performers, Tony Mayor and Phil Dean-Walford.

The play was performed in Canberra, Sydney and other eastern state cities in 2015 and 2016.

Jasper Jones

Jasper Jones, by Craig SilveyCraig Silvey’s 2009 novel (my review) has, like Winton’s Cloudstreet and Grenville’s The secret river, became one of Australia’s most popular contemporary novels. It was adapted for theatre in 2014 and for film in 2017. The play adaptation was done by versatile actor and writer, Kate Mulvany. Being a Western Australian-based story, the play was first performed in Perth, with productions following in Sydney and Melbourne in 2016.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s reviewer, Jason Blake, said the following of the Sydney production:

I finished the book off this morning, just before writing this review. I think Mulvany has done a fine job in creating a play that stands on its own feet, though I do feel slightly cheated of the fiery, cleansing climax Silvey has provided his readers.

But whether you know the book or not, this piercing adaptation is very much worth seeing for the way it depicts – and shows ways across – some of the deep and enduring divides in our society.

The women in black/Ladies in black

The women in black, Madeleine St John, book coverMusician Tim Finn and writer Carolyn Burns’ 2015 adaptation of Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel, The women in black (my review) is an exception in this list for three reasons: it’s the only one whose title differs from the book’s, it’s a musical comedy rather than a drama, and I’ve seen it! It won Best New Australian Work for Finn and Burns at the 2016 Helpmann Awards.

I’ve been pondering the name change, and my guess is that Finn and Burns felt, probably validly, that the word “Ladies” better conjures the 1950s fashion-section-of-a-department-store setting of the story. Anyhow, I enjoyed the adaptation, and loved that Finn took words from the book for the songs, as in “He’s a bastard, a bastard, a standard issue bastard” (“The Bastard Song”).

The Wikipedia article on the musical quotes the ArtsHub reviewer:

a comedy of mid-20th century manners, Ladies in Black is a paean to an optimistic future – the future of an uncomplicated gender equality and seamless multiculturalism. But Finn’s canny lyricism transports the play from its late 50s context to a subtle but salient comment on social issues of today.

While we have certainly moved on since the setting of this novel, this reviewer has a point – but I’m not sure that message will be the show’s lasting impression. It’s probably a bit too light and fun for that.

An aside: Australian film director Bruce Beresford, and friend of Madeleine St John, has been wanting to adapt the novel to film for a couple of decades now. I’d love to see what he did with it.

Is there any Aussie (if you’re an Aussie) or other (if you’re not) novel that you’d love to see adapted (jn any form)?

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: 5 Australian novels to theatre

  1. I’m unlikely to,see any adaptations simply because I loathe musicals which is what a lot of them are now – they can get more bums on seats and can charge higher prices. So many of the theatres in London are now running this kind of “entertainment”. I just want straight drama …..

  2. I think Coda by Thea Astley would make a good play. Witty and satirical it is, and would engage the audience. Robyn Nevin would be brilliant as Kathleen. Though I am not a fan of adaptations of books into films, plays or operas. Not that I have seen many, but the ones I have seen, have let me down.

    • Yes, good one Meg. That could adapt to the theatre beautifully. Must say I’m not a big seeker of adaptations into plays overall, though I’m happy to see films. I think this is partly because the play form seems so much more challenging in terms of its ability to convey a novel.

  3. I think Gillian Meares’ ‘Foal’s Bread’ lends itself to an adaptation for the big screen. And anything at all by Carmel Bird I can see as mini-series. I actually like to see film adaptations, and I can always find something that appeals – Australian cinematographers are the best in the world, the Australian settings are unique and so on. I agree with your view of stage adaptations.

    • Sorry Jenny. I was on the road when this posted and somehow missed your comment. Yes, I agree re Foal’s bread. Good one. And certainly I can see Carmel Bird too. I like film adaptations too, and you’re right we do have some great cinematographers.

  4. Because I’ve been concentrating on Miles Franklin so much recently I know that Old Blastus of Bandicoot, her 1930-something novel started out as a play, ie. the reverse of the process you’re describing. It would be interesting to compare the two.

    • I am not that keen on theatrical adaptation of novels but there are always exceptions and the RSC’S version of Nicholas Nickleby from late 70s/80s was excellent. Dickens is of course the most theatrical of novelists and Nickleby the most theatrical of his novels – not sure the excellence of this has been repeated very often.

      • Dickens’ books tend to be so long though, Ian, don’t they? I imagine they’d be particularly hard to adapt. Still Oliver the musical was a lot of fun! I haven’t seen a play of a Dickens novel.

    • Ah, thanks Bill. That does happen occasionally doesn’t it? That is, a book being created from a play or film. That seems to interest me less somehow. Perhaps because the book, or novel, is where my heart is, so I want it to be “true” to itself!

  5. Every year I go to the launch of Theatre Royal’s season announcement for the following. I always complain to the manager, Tim Munroe that he never puts on indigenous plays based on anything, books, etc. He always comes back re:Bangarra. Yes, they are brilliant but not a drama. After 5 years he finally showed a Tasmanian indigenous setting of a play. Not based on a book but could have been as covered many of the issues on indigenous writing. It was very good too. We just have to keep pusing in a consistent way. It’s starting to happen more and more. Would have loved to see Cloudstreet.

    • Oh, good for you Pam. We go to the same for the Canberra Theatre Centre, but I hadn’t asked that question. This is partly because we love dance and we always choose the dance options, which of course always includes Bangarra which we love. However at last year’s preview, Coranderrk was offered so we did book that too. I’m really looking forward to it.

  6. I don;t get out to plays much so I had no idea their is an adaptation thing going on. I do feel the same way Bovell about movies though. With all the adaptations and “reboots” and remakes I get very tired of it all and wish people would make the effort to be more original.

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