Australian classics have been surging onto our stages of late: Matthew Lutton and Tom Wright’s acclaimed adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock recently enjoyed success in London as well as Australia; Andrew Bovell’s stage version of The Secret River toured the country to critical acclaim; and Leah Purcell’s adaptation of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife is one of the most lauded Australian playscripts in recent memory. Kate Mulvany’s masterful adaptation of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South trilogy – whose sprawling two-part, six-and-a-half-hour form is reminiscent of Nick Enright’s stage version of Cloudstreet – stands alongside these productions as an empathetic landmark event in the Australian theatrical canon.
Park’s celebrated trilogy – The Harp in the South (1948), Poor Man’s Orange (1949), and the prequel, Missus (1985) – follows the lives of four generations of the Irish-Catholic Darcy family, who move from rural New South Wales to the slums of Surry Hills in the 1940s, searching for ‘something more’. Over the decades, the residents of Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street struggle to subsist in squalid conditions. They lose friends and family members, witness the suffering of their children, and lose hope. Eventually, developers force them from their homes.
Like the novels, Kate Mulvany’s adaptation is colourful, evocative, and intimate. At the core of Park’s trilogy is a fierce commitment to the inner worlds of working-class women; this is also the driving force of Mulvany’s script. Clearly in love with Park’s characters, Mulvany feels their world deeply and evokes the residents of Plymouth Street with empathy and humour. Of her relationship with the audience Mulvany has remarked that she should ‘make them laugh then break their hearts’. This philosophy is evident in the play’s two-part structure. The first is a joyous fairground ride of brash humour and vaudeville-esque energy; Part Two exposes the pain that pervades the characters’ lives.
The intricate script is at times flattened by Kip Williams’s direction, which tends towards broad brush strokes rather than a forensic commitment to emotion. Particularly in Part One, Williams wallows in the play’s humour but tends to shy away from its pathos. With such a long play, it is understandable why he chose this path: the first four hours rollick along so seamlessly you barely register the passage of time, but Williams’s direction often feels as though the production is afraid of its own potential to evoke grief, loss, and longing. The direction is subtler in Part Two, with the actors given more space to explore their characters’ inner lives, but there are deeper layers to Mulvany’s writing, and these feel unexplored.
The nineteen-person cast evokes the Surry Hills community beautifully and with admirable flexibility. All the actors are well-cast and each of them skilfully handles multiple characters across an expansive timeline. Rose Riley’s depiction of Roie – the eldest child of the Darcy family, who feels ‘like an island’ floating through the rough streets – balances her quiet strength with the desperate confusion of a young woman finding her way in the world. Contessa Treffone portrays Roie’s younger sister Dolour with humour and spirit, transforming her across the decades from whirlwind child to self-assured young woman. Margaret – the big-hearted matriarch of the Darcy family – is conjured with grace and complexity by Anita Hegh, who makes Margaret’s stoic suppression of grief and rage feel like an extra member of the household, until it boils over during a scene in Part Two that is among the best moments in the play. As Hughey, Jack Finsterer charts a heartbreaking descent from the earnest hope of the young provider, to the unrelenting despair of the ageing drunk – trapped as he is by the deadening mid-century expectations of manhood that gives him no room for connection. Heather Mitchell’s performance as Eny Kilker will resonate deeply in the hearts of anyone with an Irish grandmother, and Helen Thompson brings the notorious madam Delie Stock to life with empathy and compassion.
David Fleischer has designed a stark, expansive two-storey set that shifts from home to streetscape to city skyline, but mostly the stage is bare. This is a clever, bold move that allows the actors and Nick Schlieper’s beautiful lighting to do much of the storytelling. Renée Mulder’s period costume design is touchingly personal to each character – no easy task with such a large cast.
The Harp in the South remains fiercely relevant. It balances riotous humour with deep human connection, but also confronts the issues of sexism, racism, and gentrification that dominate contemporary debates. Kate Mulvany’s adaptation is an astonishing achievement that will doubtless leave an indelible mark on the Australian theatre landscape.
The Harp in the South is being performed at the Roslyn Packer Theatre by Sydney Theatre Company from 27 August to 6 October 2018. Performance attended: August 25.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.