Flights of fancy ... Meyne Wyatt takes on the role of Peter Pan. Photo: Steven Siewert
In a darkened bedroom, lit only by a toy globe, three children are asleep in their beds. A bell tinkles. Then another. Soon a symphony of bells fills the room. A golden light darts between the cupboard and the beds, then disappears. Silence. A boy's voice is heard in the darkness, ''Tink? Where are you?''
The opening scenes of J.M. Barrie's most famous play, Peter Pan, are unfolding in the rehearsal room in Belvoir's warehouse in Surry Hills. The bedroom is pure 1980s - bunk beds, board games and a bean bag - but the Darling children, Wendy, Michael and John, seem to retain the demure demeanour of Barrie's Edwardian originals.
But Peter Pan is different. Stepping through the window looking for Tinker Bell is indigenous actor Meyne Wyatt. No green tights. No feather in his cap. This Peter Pan is a strong, wiry, sharp-talking urchin, nothing like that portrayed by the many petite, crop-haired actresses who have played ''the demon boy'' on stage in British pantomimes and early films.
In the next scene, Wyatt is tap-dancing with his shadow, played by actor Gareth Davies. Later, excited by having his shadow stitched back into place, he leaps about the room, throwing in a few Michael Jackson moves - a finger click, a spin.
''I see Peter as a bit of a street kid,'' says 23-year-old Wyatt during a break. ''He's like boys I knew growing up. Boys who lived down the road and used to come over to my house. Maybe they were a little bit rough, or a little bit wild. Some of them didn't have both their parents, which is similar to Peter. So I've taken things from people I know.''
Born and raised in Kalgoorlie, Wyatt is in demand. He made an explosive debut in The Brothers Size and Silent Disco (both at Griffin Theatre), winning the Sydney Theatre Award for best newcomer in 2011, his first year out of NIDA. Since then he's worked in back-to-back theatre productions, most recently in Bell Shakespeare's The School for Wives, as well as starring in his first film role, as Jimmy in The Sapphires.
Director Ralph Myers says he wanted Wyatt for the role of Peter from the start.
''Meyne has a kind of magnetism,'' he says. ''When he's on stage, you can't take your eyes off him. And there is something quite Peter Pan-ish about him in real life. He's mercurial and quick on his feet, and cheeky and irreverent. He just seemed like the perfect person to do it. He's bringing a real depth to the role, too. Just one line from Meyne conveys so much meaning and depth.''
Myers says he didn't deliberately cast an indigenous actor in the role, but he acknowledges his choice will add extra layers of meaning. ''All I wanted was a group of great actors in the room,'' he says. ''But it is inevitable that having an indigenous actor play a boy who comes in the window of a middle-class home and makes it a whole lot more interesting will have a resonance. But it wasn't my goal to make a piece about politics. I'm trying to make a piece of theatre that is full of wonder and spectacle and illusion for families.''
Wyatt says while it's easy for him to play the ''cheeky blackfella'', he's looking for roles that cross barriers.
''I think in this play, people will really see me as something different,'' he says. ''Peter is a hero. He wants to live forever and never grow up, but I don't know if that's entirely true. He hasn't had a mother, so there's something really hurt about him. His cockiness is a shield, it's a defence so no one can get too close to him.''
James Matthew Barrie wrote Peter Pan for the stage in 1904. The novel Peter and Wendy came in 1911. He reportedly resisted having an actress play the elfin Peter, but the tradition of women playing the ''principal boy'' in pantomimes was entrenched and continues to this day.
Some scholars assert Peter Pan is a child version of Barrie, an unusually small, whimsical man given to sudden mood swings who found it difficult to love or be loved. Others believe Peter is modelled on Barrie's older brother, David, who died in an ice-skating accident on the eve of his 14th birthday, a boy who never grew up.
The most popular theory is that it was Barrie's much later friendship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her sons that inspired him to create Wendy (a name Barrie coined and made popular), the adventurous Peter and his gaggle of Lost Boys.
In the summer of 1897, Barrie met the Davies boys (George, 4, Jack, 3, and baby Peter) while strolling in Kensington Gardens with his St Bernard dog, Porthos. He spent the whole summer with them, performing magic tricks, playing in the park and inventing stories about fairies and pirates.
Barrie's friendship with the Davies family was portrayed in the 2004 film Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, released just 12 months after P.J. Hogan's big-budget Peter Pan, filmed on the Gold Coast and in New Zealand.
''We don't know for sure how much of the playwright's autobiography is useful,'' says Sydney playwright Tommy Murphy, who has adapted several versions of Barrie's stage play into this new production for Belvoir.
''But we do know Barrie was able to enter into a childish imagination in a very complete way. He has a universal message that everybody should preserve something of their childlike selves in adult years. We should retain that zeal for life, the passion and imagination and sense of adventure that disappears as adult pressures take over. If the balance is wrong, we have a problem. The play points a finger to that balancing act.''
So why do we love Peter Pan so much?
''It's the power of youth,'' Wyatt says. ''Peter Pan is not just a lovely little boy who flies around. I mean everyone wants to fly … but really everyone wants to be a kid again. It's really great being in Neverland. You don't want to grow up but it's inevitable.''
Peter Pan opens at Belvoir on January 9.