‘Boy Swallows Universe’ was entrancing.
Such anticipation for a play hasn’t been seen in Brisbane for a long time, and so watching the finished product, I can understand why I’ve been seeing Joe Klocek’s face everywhere since last year. Trent Dalton’s ‘Boy Swallows Universe’, adapted by Tim McGarry and presented by Queensland Theatre, Brisbane Festival and QPAC, is something special.
The adaptation is based on Trent Dalton’s ABIA award-winning novel, which playwright Tim McGarry has whittled down to a moderate two hours and forty-five minutes. It follows young Eli Bell who dreams of living in The Gap, much to the confusion of the people he tells, and the obstacles along the way: his turbulent family life, the drug deals going on under his nose, and his slightly concerning relationships with local criminals. A sense of fate permeates the entire text, of greater forces than we can comprehend. These elements kept the audience intrigued as we put pieces of the Bell’s family puzzle together.
More compelling, however, were the characters in Eli’s life, particularly the babysitter with a murky past, Slim Halliday, and boss lady, Bich Dang. The narrator, Eli himself, was depicted with such honesty, charm and a touch of naivety that his own story was something more normal that we could hold onto amidst the others. While at its heart there is much violence and darkness, I found the play particularly comical and uplifting. Yes, the comedy was more of the typical tropes you expect to see in the Australian ‘larrikin’ cannon, but the genuine warmness was infectious. And because the darkness of the play is quite incredibly so, I came out of the theatre with a real fondness and connection to those warmer moments.
The show relies heavily on complex technical elements, the obvious one being the projections by video designer Craig Wilkinson. Most effective were character appearances in these projections, looming above the action and allowing greater insight into their emotions. Moments that seemed overly cinematic in the first half, came to fruition at the point where all of these enormous personalities with issues and struggles merged together for the emotional final moment. Ben Hughes, as lighting designer, ensured the scene work was complemented by the projections; the collaboration between these two departments paid off in vibrant and carefully paced design.
The scenic design by Renee Mulder places the scenes in a bleak, concrete prison exercise yard, with plenty of doors and hidey holes, but is transformed for multiple locations in the story. This vastness set the scene for Eli’s memories, but it may have been beneficial to reconsider the fly-in scenery so these locations could be shown through other elements. The concrete, roller doors and ladders all coated in projections were effective without bringing in large set pieces.
Director, Sam Strong, was able to present big questions and then centre the audience attention with Bell’s courage and strength. I was always on edge; Strong’s focus teetered between moments of smiles and moments of danger. The production was a perfect mix of heartfelt relationships between characters, and moments that Strong engineered for highly uncomfortable viewing. These consistent emotional shifts made me forget the run time, always waiting for the next development in the story. Although, as someone who hasn’t read the book, I admit there were some developments that were lost on me. Perhaps that is because McGarry’s first draft took six hours to read through, or perhaps it’s a production that warrants a second viewing.
In the cast, Joe Klocek as Eli Bell was incredibly well-chosen and carried the entire show with ease. Anthony Phelan was a standout, bringing two strong but clearly different personalities to the stage in Slim Halliday and the terrifying Tytus Broz. Ngoc Phan as Bich Dang and school teacher Mrs Birkbeck was mesmerising and had some hilarious moments as an ensemble member, as well as Hoa Xuande as the banter-ful Darren Dang. Michala Banas as mother Frankie Bell took us on an emotional and touching journey, as did the dysfunctional Robert Bell played by Mathew Cooper. Rounding out the cast was Tom Yaxley as August Bell, Anthony Gooley as Lyle Orlik and Brian Robertson, Andrew Buchanan as Teddy Kallas, Ashlee Lollback as Caitlyn Spies, Joss McWilliam as Iwan Krol and Alex Bermudez, and Charles Ball and Hsin-Ju Ely as ensemble.
‘Boy Swallows Universe’ is based on real events, real people and real experiences. There’s something momentous about seeing it come to life. It’s a play that will sit with you long after you leave the theatre.
‘Boy Swallows Universe’ performs until Saturday, 9 October 2021 at the Playhouse, QPAC. For more information visit the QPAC website.
Photos by David Kelly.