“A tremendous achievement”: Keith Gow reviews The Harp in the South, Kate Mulvany’s epic adaptation of Ruth Park’s beloved trilogy of novels
ENY: It’s part of being Irish, Maggie. Lost love is a bleak reality, isn’t it, ladies?
WOMEN: Aye. Aye.
MARGARET: I’m not Irish.
WOMEN: Tch, tch, tch.
ENY: Then what are you?
MARGARET: I… don’t know.
Early in The Harp in the South, falling in love with the man she will marry, young Margaret faces the question of who she is, as the daughter of Irish immigrants in outback New South Wales. It would be easy for her to fall into the traditions of her family homeland, given her parents’ pride in their birth country and the beautiful songs that evoke the Emerald Isle.
But Margaret’s future is not in a small town. Her future is in the hills around a city with a view of the new bridge that is being built across the harbour, the world of The Harp in the South.
Kate Mulvany’s epic adaptation of Ruth Park’s Sydney trilogy –The Harp in the South (1948), Poor Man’s Orange (1949) and Missus (1985) – is presented by the Sydney Theatre Company as a two-part play totalling nearly six-and-a-half hours. Watching a play like this, with intervals and a generous dinner break, feels like binge-watching a new Netflix series, but as a communal experience. You could see this show over two different days or put aside a whole Saturday to spend a few years in the lives of the Darcy family.
Ruth Park’s two novels and prequel are historical dramas that invite an epic treatment, and in fact were turned into a mini-series in the late 1980s, at the height of mini-series production in this country. These deep, truthful and difficult stories are a part of Australian history. They speak of a Surry Hills of 70 years ago, a place that looks nothing like the inner-city suburb of today. While the play is presented in two parts, it’s written in three parts that cover Park’s three books. All three are satisfying aspects of a whole, although director Kip Williams has given each a different visual language.
Missus is set in the fictional NSW town of Trafalgar. A blue-lit scrim at the back of the stage suggests wide open spaces and the stage is bare until the townsfolk gather for a local fair, where Margaret meets Hugh. Williams directs a smooth choreography of actors bringing props and set on and offstage in a presentation of small-town harmony. The denizens of Trafalgar are a variety of comic kooks, playing tug-of-war, plunging into a pudding-eating contest or trying to best a classic strength-test machine.
It’s a wry, gentle introduction to the matriarch and patriarch of the Darcy clan. By the end of the first hour, the couple and their new child have travelled to the big smoke and moved into Plymouth Street. Now time skips ahead to the late 1940s, where the bulk of the plays are set.
HUGH: Wanna walk with me through the House of Horrors, Margaret?
MARGARET: I’d be delighted, Hugh!
The story of Park’s The Harp in the South takes up the rest of Part One. The open spaces of Trafalgar are replaced by the grey walls of the terrace houses in the Hills. The suburb is dank and dirty and the citizens here are an array of far more dubious characters. Margaret Darcy (Anita Hegh) is haunted by her missing son Thady. Her two daughters are in school, learning the importance of an education and wealth. Roie (Rose Riley) is her mother’s daughter, not world-wise but fiercely loyal to her family. Dolour (Contessa Treffone) is book-smart and obsessed with getting on a radio quiz to prove her worth in the world.
This act is dominated by a kind of clockwork aesthetic: everything moves with precision, slowly clicking into place. The choreography might echo the camaraderie of Trafalgar, but it has a notably darker heart. Not everyone is to be trusted. Other residents of 12½ Plymouth Street are particularly unpleasant: a mother, for example, who beats her mentally ill son. Surry Hills of the late 1940s is home to brothels and purveyors of sly grog, and is a tough environment for the whole family, but they stick together through the struggle.
Part One is an exquisite play brought to life in a faultless production. After three and a half hours, you really get to know the Darcy family, as if you’ve lived with them. It’s full of humour and dramatic tensions that left me upset but also hopeful.
FATHER COOLEY: There is a great sadness in these Hills… Look at that Sydney sky. Not a cloud. Not a grain of dust between Earth and the planets, it seems. It seems… vastly empty. And we feel we are alone, here in these Hills of Surry, Sydney.
When we return for A Poor Man’s Orange in Part Two, we find Surry Hills in a state of flux. The Darcys have been threatened with eviction at the end of Part One, but they are keeping hold of their home as others are moved out onto the street. The audience isn’t allowed the comfort of the sets we spent Act Two getting to know: the fixed structure of the Darcy home is gone. The gentle revolve that characterised the first half now spins the characters unsettlingly.
The Darcy family deal with birth, death and infidelity and the changing landscape around them. Houses in Plymouth street are being knocked down and we can hear this destruction, even if we don’t quite feel as devastated as the characters we’re watching.
Religion is peppered through Part One, but in Part Two Father Cooley (Bruce Spence) and his church play a larger part. Margaret looks for guidance as the Darcy’s family life becomes even more of a struggle. The beautiful songs of the earlier acts, sung by the cast, still filter through, but now this music is recorded and played to the characters and the audience. We are distanced from it, and it’s less comforting.
The last hour of Part Two wrestles with wrapping up this lengthy family drama. Some of the dramatic questions have been resolved long before the end, leaving the final scenes feeling slightly deflated. Mulvany’s adaptation and Williams’ production falls into sentimentality, which it had resisted for most of the show’s running time, and some of the final scenes are didactic in a way that the rest of the play avoids. It might have been better to find a more compact resolution to Poor Man’s Orange.
Overall, though, with 18 actors portraying scores of characters across dozens of scenes, The Harp in the South is a tremendous achievement.
Anita Hegh performs the older Margaret as a tough broad, leavened with the vulnerability of a mother coping with the loss of a child and struggling to raise two headstrong daughters in the late 1940s. This play focuses on the women of the family, and the triumvirate of performances by Hegh, Riley and Traffone as the Darcy women will stick in my mind for a long time.
Helen Thomson as a local madam steals the show every time she’s on stage, and her character adds to the kaleidoscope of women’s experience depicted in the play. Heather Mitchell’s performance as Eny Kilker, Margaret’s mother, is deeply affecting – and her argument with son-in-law Hugh about Irish traditions is a true comic highlight.
Renee Mulder’s costumes are suitably historic, mostly monochrome until a dramatic moment when Margaret travels to a more middle-class suburb of Sydney, and the comfortable greys and browns of her shabby dress pales in comparison to the sharp business suits on a train platform and the colourful dress of a housewife she encounters.
David Fleischer’s set design stretches from minimalism to moments when the set breaks apart and fits together, like puzzle pieces: a family home transforms into a brothel, or a bare stage into a small-town fair, complete with merry-go-round. Nick Schleiper’s lighting design works hand-in-hand with Fleischer’s set to convey a rich array of moods, from cheery open-air strolling to dark laneways and dusty streets, to a visit to Luna Park, which is both exciting and menacing.
Kate Mulvany’s epic two-part work sits alongside a rich tradition of Sydney plays that dig into what the Harbour City means to visitors and its residents. The city is rarely portrayed on stage as a place characters are comfortable living in or with, but it’s often played as a centre for change. Here the change is generational and historic.
The Harp in the South tells a vastly different story to David Williamson’s Emerald City or Gordon Graham’s The Boys or Jane Bodie’s This Year’s Ashes, but it feels fitting that the city itself finally gets an epic play – a prequel to the plays of Sydney that are a central part of Australia’s theatrical history. This production stands proudly and deservedly alongside its forbears.
The Harp in the South, adapted for the stage from Rith Park’s novels by Kate Mulvany, directed by Kip Williams. Set designed by David Fleischer, costumes by Renée Mulder, lighting by Nick Schlieper, composition by The SWEATS, sound design by Nate Edmondson, musical direction by Luke Byrne. Performed by Joel Bishop, Luke Carroll, Tony Cogin, Jack Finsterer, Benedict Hardie, Emma Harvie, Anita Hegh, Ben O’Toole, Lucia Mastrantone, Heather Mitchell, Tara Morice, Rose Riley, Rahel Romahn, Jack Ruwald, Guy Simon, Bruce Spence, Helen Thomson, Contessa Treffone and George Zhao.
STC is wheelchair accessible and guide dogs are permitted. For specific access requirements, please call Box Office on (02) 9250 1777 to book your seats.
Part One: 1pm Wednesday September 19th, 6.30pm Monday October 1
Part Two: 7.30pm Wednesday September 19th, 6.30pm Tuesday October 2
Audio described performance
Part One: 1.30pm Saturday September 22nd
Part Two: Sep 7.30pm Saturday September 22nd