As part of the launch of Queensland Theatre’s 2020 Season, I spoke with Trent Dalton, author of bestselling novel Boy Swallows Universe, and Tim McGarry, who is adapting the novel for the stage.
Boy Swallows Universe is set in Brisbane in the 80s, and it has a very distinct sense of place and time. How does that translate to the stage?
Tim: I think it’s going to play out beautifully on stage. It’s a fantastic story, it’s a very theatrical story, it’s a very real story, and I think it’s quintessentially Australian. The characters are so beautifully rendered, and the characters of Eli and August just grab you by the heart.
I think many people will have read the story, the book, but it won’t matter if they haven’t when they see the play. When they hear the voices, I suspect they might be the same voices they’ve heard themselves, because the actors will grab those voices from the story, and they will ring true.
How do you adapt a novel to become a script? What’s the process, and how much involvement does the author have?
Tim: Every author is different. Trent is the golden author because he likes to be involved. I think it’s important for authors to be involved because…you know, I’m working on Trent’s life, and I want to get it right! I don’t want him to walk in and go, “I hated that, that’s not how I see it.” Anything that we start to work on, and we have to adjust and change for the medium of theatre, Trent needs to be on that same journey with us, so we all have an understanding of how it’s eventually going to play out. And then Trent can have a really strong say. I think it’s essential to have the author involved from the get-go.
Trent: [Tim] gets it. And he gets Brisbane, and he gets the world that I came from. He gets the things that are at the heart of that story, which are love, hope, redemption. Here is the meaning of life, which I tried to get at in the book – it’s the most obvious one, it’s that love will be the way through. We all know that, but I needed to know that as a kid because it wasn’t always evident. It took some time for me to know that. Tim knows that instantly, on page one he knows it, and that’s so cool. We’re talking hardcore stuff here, like heroin addiction and being imprisoned, violence and domestic violence…massive social issues this nation is facing, but Tim doesn’t forget to remember that the most important things about that book were hope and love.
What would you say to people who have read the book and loved it, but might be a little apprehensive about theatre, or have never been to the theatre before?
Trent: This is the perfect play to bring them along to. If they’ve read the book, it’ll be an introduction into the theatre that they’ll come knowing already, and hopefully through the images they’ll see the book from another angle.
Tim: I think you see it in another dimension, and I think it is our responsibility as theatre makers to make sure that we can capture the absolute essence and the truth of Trent’s story. You’ll just see it played out in a different medium.
Trent: I think theatre is intoxicating. It is almost like walking into a dream for two hours, and I cannot express enough that that’s what these boys are creating. You will walk into the mind of Eli Bell and that is an amazing space. My big question mark was, how are they going to get that interior wonder? How are they going to recreate that? And they’ve done it.
I think you will walk into that theatre and you will step back into a Brisbane that so many of us remember and are so fond of – we’re talking Billabongs in summer melting across your hand, and there’s cans of ice cold Pasito and Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s the Premier and it’s just that sweltering summer and everyone’s shirtless and Brisbane is on fire, you know? To step back into that world, and then step back into the wonder of this kid…I mean, I just think that’s so exciting. At the heart of it is tapping into that joyous, kind of wondrous, look at life that children can have, particularly kids who are dealing with trauma. That’s a beautiful insight too, that we all remember. There’s something about what these guys have done that reminds me of what it feels like to just…to have the world in front of you and just be living life, like children do, just raw. Every minute is a new idea.
It’s so much for the blokes too. I hope they get along to this one, there’s so much in it for them. As much as there is for anyone, but there just also happens to be a bit of football, a bit of rugby league, a few fights and scuffs. It’s got it all.
Tim: It’s so topical now, that masculinity. Where does the male fit in the new parameters of society? We’re rethinking all that stuff now, and the book really captures that maleness.
Trent: One woman is dying every week in Australia to domestic violence. How do we show men to be good? How do we show boys to grow into good men? Maybe one of those ways is to show that in storytelling, in the books they’re going to read, and the theatre plays they’re going to see. The kid in the book, Eli, is constantly asking himself that question – how do I be good in this state, in the things I’m being presented with, in this housing commission cluster in Bracken Ridge? That’s the story of my life, that’s the story of my brothers’ lives. We’re being presented with all these role models – which aspects of these men can we take to make ourselves, to ensure that we become better men than those guys?
Tim: It’s the perfect story to begin that conversation for many, or keep that discussion going for many. It’s a beautifully rendered entrance for discussion of masculinity and men, and where we fit, who our role models are.
I think the book speaks to those masculine themes, but also what it means to be a good person – what that looks like, and how we work out what that looks like. Eli reads, and compares the people in books to the people in his life.
Trent: Absolutely. And how do we look at people we pass in the street? One of the sweetest people in my mum’s life, in the 80s, was a convicted killer named Slim Halliday, who went away for 30 years. Potentially for a crime he may not have committed, but that’s another story. On paper, he’s a killer. But that guy, in my mum’s darkest hour, was the only one who was there for her, giving her the right bits of advice that she needed at that particular time. So, can I look back on that guy as a good man in that moment if, on paper, he’s done these horrendous things? Where does forgiveness come in, and where does redemption come in? Big themes, big topics, but it’s just a way of looking at people and that brilliant, brilliant notion that you need to get close. You need to come closer to humans. It’s harder to hate them when you’re up close, and that’s a real important lesson that Eli learns.
You’re looking through Eli’s eyes, and there are elements of magic realism in the story – does that present a lot of technical challenges, in adapting the work?
Tim: There are some technical challenges, but theatre is capable of doing anything. You can be standing on a stage, turn the lights out and just put a spot on, they can be on the moon. They can be anywhere! Put a bit of smoke under it, bit of beautiful music, audiences will go with it if you set up the convention very early on. I’m just a cog in the wheel of Trent’s story, and the next cog will be the designers, then the actors…all those cogs will make it richer and richer and richer.
What do you hope the audience takes away from seeing Boy Swallows Universe?
Tim: I’m always terrified of saying what an audience might think, but I hope the audience finds empathy, for Trent’s journey and for the journey of a young boy who has been presented an extraordinary set of circumstances to grow through. I think what the story will bring, is an enormous amount of empathy for people who walk a different path than theatre audiences may walk. Audiences will see it from their own point of view, that’s what I love. They will take away from it, individually, what they bring to it.
Trent: There’s many things I hope they take away, but I genuinely hope they’re driving home and they know why they’re on this earth. That’s what it’s about, it’s about all those big, big things, and I hope they get reminded of that. They already know it, but just get a little reminder. A really beautiful, colourful, dramatic-as-hell reminder [laughs].