Bringing Boy Swallows Universe to the stage

On the face of it, bringing Trent Dalton’s 471-page debut novel Boy Swallows Universe to the stage sounds impossible. The Brisbane-based author summarises his initial response to playwright Tim McGarry – who approached him with a proposal to adapt his massive manuscript before the book had even been published – as “good luck to you, mate”.

At close to three hours, broken by a short intermission, Boy Swallows Universe is a big night out. That’s nothing, though: the first of McGarry’s 10 drafts took a full six and a half hours to be read out by the cast. “It was a very difficult novel to unpick; every moment is interdependent on the other,” McGarry says.

But at a preview performance this week at QPAC, time (to borrow a phrase from the final scene) does not exist. Led by a bravura performance by Joe Klocek as Eli Bell, who is on stage and narrating almost throughout, the stage adaptation is taut and tense. It was received with a standing ovation.

Boy Swallows Universe was a publishing phenomenon rarely seen in Australian literary fiction. A year ago, HarperCollins announced the book had sold more than half a million copies since its publication in July 2018. It was swamped by celebrity accolades and awards. The story of Eli Bell – a loose fit for Dalton himself – captured public imagination.

Queensland Theatre director Sam Strong says he was especially attracted by the blend of genres in the novel. “It moves very quickly and effortlessly between gritty social realism, cinematic thriller, magic realism and coming-of-age story. I thought those sorts of flips would particularly lend themselves to a theatrical version.”

He confirms the biggest challenge was distilling the novel’s “Dickensian sprawl” into a manageable timeframe. Initially, McGarry says he felt he had to include everything, honouring all the book’s subplots that feed into Eli Bell’s origin story and propel him on his journey. Hence the six-and-a-half-hour first reading.

Slowly, they pared it back. As Bell matures from the beginning of adolescence to the cusp of adulthood, video designer Craig Wilkinson transports him (and the audience) between many recognisable Brisbane landmarks: Boggo Road Jail and the Town Hall clock tower, and beyond to Redcliffe’s Hornibrook Bridge and outer-suburban Darra.

Somehow, it all hangs together. “We knew we were always going to be faithful to the spirit of the novel,” Strong says. “Our job was to translate it into the key of theatre, to add theatrical value to it, and tell the story in a way that only theatre can … If we were too precious about the story and too literal, it wouldn’t work.”

It helped that Dalton wasn’t precious either. “I’ve written so many things where a committee has come in and just crushed my soul, and I will never be that guy,” he says. “I said to Tim, don’t second-guess anything, please be just as ambitious and swing for the fence in the same way that I tried to do.”

Throughout the process of adaptation, Strong and McGarry tried to lean into the book’s most fantastical elements. “Part of the novel’s appeal is that there’s a kind of chutzpah and confidence about it which, of course, stems from its author as well,” Strong says. “Rather than try to knock the hard edges off it, our approach was to embrace those extremes.”

The extremes included some very dark matter. Here, McGarry had to be more careful. “It’s basically [Dalton’s] family story,” he says. “I was very conscious of that, and he was very conscious of how certain characters were going to be portrayed, in particular his mum. I’ve always been extremely sensitive about how to portray these characters truthfully.

“But his messaging to us was – and from his own family – was, don’t go light on this. It’s not a fairytale. The domestic violence was real; the addictions were real; the poverty was real, and we need to see that – don’t turn it into something that it wasn’t, tell it like it is. It’s hilariously funny at some points, and at other points it’s deeply tragic.”

Here, Dalton confesses to some nerves about seeing the staged version, which essentially re-enacts his mother’s trauma. It was one thing to put that on the page. It was only later, with the premiere looming, that he realised it would be quite another to sit next to her in a theatre while that trauma was performed in front of an audience.

But he says her resilience transcends her experiences. “My Mum is such a bad-arse, man. Like, she is so fucking tough I cannot even begin to tell you, she is just hardcore. I wish I had half of her strength. That’s the thing I keep forgetting – she’s the woman that went through all of that stuff, so what am I worried about, you know?”

First published in the Guardian, 2 September 2021

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