“We were in our own bubble when we first made it,” recalls Matthew Whittet, the writer behind Windmill Theatre’s critically acclaimed play and feature film, Girl Asleep.
“I think, when we took it out to the world, people went, ‘What the hell is this?’ They looked at [Girl Asleep] as something so idiosyncratic – which was nice, it was really exciting.”
After premiering at the 2015 Adelaide Film Festival, Girl Asleep went on to win 12 national and international awards (including Most Popular Feature at the Adelaide Film Festival, The Age Critics Prize at Melbourne International Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival) and screen in more than 100 cities worldwide.
Whittet adapted the screenplay from the original play, which premiered at the 2014 Adelaide Festival. Now, it’s returning to the stage at the Adelaide Festival Centre this month.
The absurd and surreal coming-of-age story illustrates the awkwardness and angst of puberty, complete with cringe-y parents and bitchy schoolgirls. It follows the chronically shy Greta Driscoll on her 15th birthday, frozen in the spotlight at a party she doesn’t want, when a stranger arrives and propels her into a parallel fantasy world full of fantastical creatures.
Both the play and film are swathed in a dreamy, kitschy ’70s Australiana aesthetic, courtesy of AACTA-award-winning designer Jonathon Oxlade. Broadsheet’s Patrick Boyle wrote that the film “feels like Wes Anderson remade Alice in Wonderland in suburban Australia”. Whittet describes it as an “Australian [type of] knockabout stupidness”. But it’s a story that’s resounded with critics and audiences worldwide.
“It’s a universal story, of someone coming to terms with growing up, and not wanting to face the peer pressure that can push people into making choices about their sexuality or a sexual awakening when they’re not ready, or they don’t want to,” says Whittet. “And I look at that, and I just go, ‘People go through that!’ Whether you’re here [in Australia] or anywhere.
“By making it here, in our own little space, a certain kind of Australianness emerges that you’re not necessarily aware of until other people from overseas go, ‘Oh, that’s so Australian!’”
Directed by Windmill’s artistic director Rosemary Myers, the 2015 adaptation of Girl Asleep is Windmill’s first feature film (which led to the creation of the company’s Windmill Pictures arm). Whittet describes the process of going from stage to screen as thrilling but rigorous. “It went through a huge change when we did the film. In some ways, doing the film meant we had to get inside the kernel of the story – the heart of it, and make sure that was all working,” says Whittet. “Doing the film all of a sudden meant, ‘Oh, we could have different characters, we could do different locations’ … but we didn’t want to lose the kind of joy that the theatre brings to it.”
The on-stage remount reunites much of the original cast: Ellen Steele (The Club) returns as Greta, alongside Amber McMahon (School Dance, North by Northwest) and Whittet as her parents (who reprise their roles in the film). They’re joined by Sheridan Harbridge (Girl Asleep Belvoir, Muriel’s Wedding The Musical) and Antoine Jelk (A View From The Bridge). Whittet is excited for audiences to see the story’s latest iteration, back at its original stage home.
“I think the play is kind of crazier,” he says. “There are some bigger, weirder leaps of imagination that you can’t quite do the same on film. On stage you can just say something, and all of a sudden we go, ‘Okay, well we’re here now! You’re either with us or you’re not.’ It kind of comes out of a playfulness, and a sort of joy, and a silliness as well. Sometimes when it’s just fun, it can make its own kind of sense. It finds its own rhythms and its feet … It’s a joyful thing to get back into.”
Girl Asleep runs from September 12 to 21 at the Adelaide Festival Centre.