Playing Beatie Bow
Time Out says
This magical time hop has heart to spare in a show the proves the perfect debut for the new Wharf Theatre
As Sydney Theatre Company executive director Patrick McIntyre so aptly put it in his pre-performance remarks, “It’s not every day that a new theatre opens in Sydney. In fact, it’s not even every decade.” But that’s precisely what Sydney’s lucky theatrephiles have finally been given, at STC’s home in Walsh Bay. After two years of extensive refurbishments, the Wharf Theatres and Bar are once again open for business, and there's no better way to christen this newly minted stage than with a brand-new adaptation of a classic Australian story, set right on the doorstep of the Walsh Bay wharves, in the Rocks.
Based on Ruth Park’s much-loved young adult novel and directed by STC artistic director Kip Williams, it tells the story of 17-year-old Abigail (Catherine Văn-Davies), a teenage misfit with a strange affinity for antique fashions and a worrying inclination for kleptomania. The oddities of our sticky-fingered heroine spring from her turbulent home life as she struggles to navigate the complexities of her parents’ messy on-again-off-again marriage. However, teenage angst soon becomes the least of her worries after she is accidentally thrust back in time 150 years by a young girl with mystical powers, Beatie Bow (Sofia Nolan). Stranded in Victorian Sydney, on the Rocks (as per common parlance of the 19th century), she becomes entangled in an ancient Scottish prophecy and the dramas of a family with magic in their blood. Her extraordinary experiences offer her a life-changing new perspective on the bonds we share with kin and how our personal choices, our hopes and disappointments echo through the ages.
The book, first published in 1980, has been both a bestseller and a classroom staple for years, so conjuring this story of supernatural time travel and Celtic superstition for the theatre requires a careful balance of reverence and invention. Few Australian playwrights are more adept at toeing this line than Kate Mulvany, who has a flawless pedigree of transporting narratives from the page to the stage, notably STC’s epic two-part production of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South in 2018.
Mulvany makes some savvy choices with her tweaks to Beatie Bow’s plot, placing the contemporary action in the present day, rather than the ‘80s. Aside from the opportunities to shoehorn in a few nods to 2020's difficulties and digital ephemera, this update also allows for a far richer acknowledgment of the impact of colonialism on Gadigal land than might have been typically appreciated 40 years ago. This is movingly channelled into a new role, created for this adaptation: the First Nations laundryman, Johnny Whites, through whom the stories of countless Aboriginal families, fractured and displaced by Australia’s white supremacist past, are given voice. But by and large, Mulvany stays true to Park's storytelling, with the play’s three-hour duration affording the audience ample time to absorb the sometimes convoluted layers of Scottish folklore pivotal to the action.
It also provides plenty of time for the nine-strong cast to summon detailed, nuanced characterisations that truly earn our empathy and affection. Nolan as the precocious, irrepressible Beatie Bow is a particular highlight, blazing with defiance and wit. Heather Mitchell utterly transforms as she slips between the roles of Abigail’s dismissive, phone-obsessed grandmother in the present and the sweet yet unbending mystic matriarch of the past, driven by a responsibility to protect a family lineage that draws its power and meaning from the Orkney Isles, thousands of kilometres away.
But not every spell this show attempts to cast hits its mark. Abigail is essentially held hostage by a strange and frightening collective, and yet by the end of the play, she has developed a profound affection for her captors. When her determination to return to her own time suddenly surrenders in a heartbeat to a fleeting infatuation with Beatie’s betrothed brother Judah (Rory O’Keefe), it robs her yearning for home of its urgency. In a play that takes such care to ensure certain moments of emotional clarity are sharply in focus, these fuzzy, glazed-over corners of the narrative are hard to shake.
The production itself offers few places for such shortcomings to hide. Williams is a director who has often turned to cutting-edge stagecraft for his productions, but for the refurbished Wharf Theatres' debut, he’s kept his vision almost wantonly stark in its simple, analogue nature. Using the full depth of this flexible space, which can be bisected into two separate theatres, he allows the scale of this cavernous stage to wow us, limiting the set to a smattering of pared-back, fuss-free stage elements, save for one impressive evocation of Sydney Harbour using a vast expanse of sail canvas. On the one hand, it’s perhaps a strange decision to showcase a state-of-the-art theatre with such a restrained production. But what we get instead is a performance that places the very essence of STC front and centre: beautiful storytelling through exceptional talent.