Kate Mulvany’s adaptation proves that Ruth Park’s epic endures
Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South trilogy (1948–1985) comes in at over six hours. Although each of the two parts is sold as a standalone play, the work should be seen in its entirety, preferably over one day. It’s a warm, rollicking feast of theatre featuring scores of characters played by 19 actors who scarcely miss a beat. Moving from turn-of-the-century rural New South Wales to late-1940s Sydney, Park’s stories for decades have captivated readers for the strength of their characters, and for language as adept at conjuring place and atmosphere as it is at rendering dialogue. Mulvany’s adaptation highlights their relevance today in the focus on people that Australian stories have traditionally relegated to the margins: women, the urban working class and Indigenous people. The Irish immigrant narrative also proves a template for the many nations to follow.
We begin in the fictional town of Trafalgar, where Hugh Darcy and Margaret Kilker, children of Irish immigrants, were born within a few months of one another. Free-wheeling hard-drinking Hughie isn’t the sort of man that Margaret’s parents wanted for her, but the two end up marrying. Some of the finest moments in the play take place in this first act. Bruce Spence and Heather Mitchell as John and Eny Kilker steal every scene as hard-bitten kind-hearted Irish missing their old country, optimistic about their new.
The revolving stage enables seamless transformations from domestic interiors, through a fairground strung with lights and bustling with stalls, to Surry Hills terrace houses eloquently evoked with scaffolding. Nigel Poulton’s work as movement director shines here; David Fleischer’s set and Nick Schlieper’s lighting are in perfect synchronicity with both each other and the cast who move props on and offstage in an agile choreographic metaphor of community. The blue-lit scrim at the back of the stage transforms from the night sky in the bush to the streets of Surry Hills. In one of the play’s many deft actions, the young Hugh and Eny walk through one door as their elder counterparts, played by Jack Finsterer and Anita Hegh, walk out another. Almost 20 years has passed.
In strides the youngest Darcy, teenager Dolour whose vibrant Strine introduces us to the streets of Surry Hills. Contessa Treffone exults in this role, ushering Dolour to adulthood, from the wings to the main stage. Hugh Darcy brought his family to the city for the promise of employment in the factory district of Surry Hills. Now we see their hopes for prosperity have been squashed by the grim reality of Sydney’s most notorious slum. The Depression is over but life is still tough.
Thady, their middle child, went missing in these streets as a young boy and the scar of this loss is all pervasive. It’s a note overplayed, the boy used as ghost and chorus, introducing the play and reappearing throughout as a cipher of loss. Kip Williams’s fine sense of comic timing, in voice and body, draws wonderful performances from his cast. Vignettes filled the theatre with laughter: the Christmas pudding duel between Hughie and fierce Irish matriarch Eny, Margaret’s wrestles with cantankerous stove Puffing Billy, the rowdy schoolroom, the radio quiz that Dolour wins. Yet when carried away, Williams can remove us from the very real suffering in these people’s daily lives. Sometimes this tone begins in Mulvany’s writing. For instance, Hugh’s lame brother back in Trafalgar, Jer (played by Guy Simon), is characterised without the devious manipulative side that Park gave him in Missus (1985), flattening him to a valiant, loyal battler. This has a flow-on effect to the plot: Margaret’s reasons for withholding the news of Jer’s death are not entirely clear, because in this version her vexed relationship to the more clingy, complicated Jer has been winnowed. At other times the sentimentality can be attributed to the uneasy alternation between realism and musical theatre that characterises much of Part One. The suffusion of song throughout the text is smart, singalongs being central to working-class Irish culture: Mulvany and musical director Luke Byrne unearthed gems, but at times more contemplative space would have benefited the emotional thrust of the story.
The Darcy family are quite well-off compared to many of their neighbours. Notwithstanding their house being full of rats and bedbugs, they have enough rooms to take in boarders. Tara Morice’s Miss Sheily lives upstairs with her disabled son, Johnny (Rahel Romahn). A single mother caring for a disabled son in this era of few social services has devastating consequences, and Romahn’s and Morice’s deliveries are pitch perfect. In another room lives Patrick Diamond (Tony Cogin), an Orangeman, who offers plenty of reflections on old sectarian Australia as this crusty “proddy-hopper” drinks and jousts with “pope-worshipper” Hughie. Dominating the neighbourhood is Helen Thomson’s Delie Stock, an amalgam of Darlinghurst brothel madam Tilly Devine and grog queen Kate Leigh, the latter’s beerhouses central to the neighbourhood’s economy by the time Ruth Park lived there. Delie swaggers around in heels and sumptuous fur, her bright red lipstick a beacon to us in the stalls. Of course we’re on her side when she offers to fund a picnic for the local kids, and the pious Father Cooley initially refuses her dirty money. Again, Williams has such a great time with this character, and Thomson plays her with so much charisma, that when she orders the bashing of a street worker who has informed on her to the police, we don’t really feel the brutality, not even when it ends with the victim’s face being slashed.
Part of the reason Ruth Park’s Harp in the South (1948) caused a storm when it won the 1946 Sydney Morning Herald competition for an unpublished novel is that it spoke so frankly not just about the squalor these people lived in, their drinking and their fighting, but also about their sex. “Everything in the lives of Roie and Charlie was bound up in sex,” wrote Park, an astonishing sentence for a woman to write in the prudish Australia that was to censor Lady Chatterley’s Lover for another 20 years. Despite unquestioned allegiance to the Church and the grind of poverty, Hughie and Margaret, like John and Eny before them, have a frank and sensual love. The sinister side of sex is also shown with predatory men, like Roie’s first boyfriend Tommy Mendel, as well as a scene with teenagers in the fun fair where the boys practically rape the girls in the Love Boat. Park enjoyed a happy marriage with D’Arcy Niland, whose influence in her work extends far beyond the motif of his name. With Niland, Park travelled through country New South Wales before settling in Surry Hills; born in Glen Innes, Niland had worked his way through the bush and both writers’ ease with Indigenous people could be sourced to these experiences. Park’s Charlie Roth is a stand-out character, in his decency and solid determination. Guy Simon seems born to play him.
Roth, like the Darcys, has come from the bush to Surry Hills for work. A contemporary view could locate Charlie within the Stolen Generations, as he doesn’t know anything about his people. In Part Two, when tragedy strikes with the death of Roie, he goes out to La Perouse where he encounters an Aboriginal man played by Luke Carroll. Carroll is in fine form in this and every other role he plays, including Kidger, Delie’s lover and a fairground barker. Though none is big, he disappears inside each, transforming his gait and voice to the point that he is unrecognisable. The scenes between him and Charlie work much better here than in the book, theatre a better forum for the combination of grit and magic at play. The old man recognises Charlie in a way that none of the white people do. Park in turn recognised the cultural aspect of Sydney’s urban Aboriginals in a way few other white writers, apart from her husband, did.
Apart from these highlights, Part Two doesn’t work as well as Part One. Charlie’s protracted grieving in the novel feels truncated here. Soundtrack overtakes song, and composer THE SWEATS’ score is sometimes too dominant. The stage is bare to impart slum clearances, a central thread in the story now, but the actors sometimes look lost in the expanse. Here, also, the underdone treatment of the Darcys’ neighbour, Lick Jimmy the Chinese grocer, is felt more keenly. In the book Poor Man’s Orange (1949), Dolour goes to Lick for a cure for acne, breaching more cultural barriers, and encountering at close range Lick’s large, noisy, friendly family. Absent from the play, it’s an understandable sacrifice, but George Zhao’s Lick Jimmy could have been given more to do. In Part One, his song “Ye Shanghai” veers close to ethnic kitsch, and the character doesn’t fill out.
I wondered also why the mood had to be more sombre overall, the yang to the yin of Part One, when all three novels contain equal parts suffering and joy. Most of the audience felt the problems with Part Two lay in its length; for me they lay more in the lack of modulation in mood, and the radical attempt to strip back the set that didn’t quite work. Dolour’s terrible eye disease, which renders her temporarily blind, ruining her chances of completing school, is well carried by Treffone, but the burgeoning love between her and Charlie feels muted, even though it is the triumphant note, the truly happy ending of this, Sydney’s most enduring epic.
I saw The Harp in the South just one week into its run, and the sophistication and polish of the work was remarkable. It’s a great piece of theatre, with continuing relevance today but as usual only accessible to the well-off due to the high ticket prices ($73–$103). Interviews in the program ask Williams and Mulvany how they avoid nostalgia in their re-telling of these stories. I think it is out of their control. The images of Roie, Charlie and Dolour that Sydney Theatre Company produced to advertise the work look like a 1950s advertisement for washing detergent (So clean! So white!), more St Ives than Surry Hills. The cloying falseness of these images was off-putting. I can’t imagine the Darcys’ contemporary equivalents – Islander families in Rooty Hill, Hazara refugees in Auburn – would feel any kinship with the people in these images, which is a shame, because Park’s trilogy is such a great comment on class in Australia, on immigration, adversity and diversity, community and resilience. Tickets for a two-month season almost sold out in the first two days. No doubt the six-figure salaried residents of contemporary Surry Hills made up a large part of the audience.
I wonder also how the work will travel, given the antipathy much of the nation bears towards Sydney, largely (ironically) because of how expensive and elitist it has become. For my money, The Harp in the South way outdoes its most obvious peer, Neil Armfield’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Park doesn’t intervene morally with her characters as Winton does. They speak to us as clearly now as they did then. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to see this epic.
Sydney Theatre Company’s The Harp in the South is on at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until October 6.
Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.
Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South trilogy (1948–1985) comes in at over six hours. Although each of the two parts is sold as a standalone play, the work should be seen in its entirety, preferably over one day. It’s a warm, rollicking feast of theatre featuring scores of characters played by 19 actors who scarcely miss a beat. Moving from turn-of-the-century rural New South Wales to late-1940s Sydney, Park’s stories for decades have captivated readers for the strength of their characters, and for language as adept at conjuring place and atmosphere as it is at rendering dialogue. Mulvany’s adaptation highlights their relevance today in the focus on people that Australian stories have traditionally relegated to the margins: women, the urban working class and Indigenous people. The Irish immigrant narrative also proves a template for the many nations...