The Australian theatrical canon has a new epic, and it’s focused on women. Adapted from Ruth Park’s literary trilogy, The Harp in the South works a treat on stage, leading with the heart to tell a saga of love, loss and family that begins in emigration from Ireland, but belongs proudly to Surry Hills.
Adapted from Missus, The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange into a two-part theatrical event by Kate Mulvany – whose wit is as quick as Park’s and her empathy just as potent – the plays, spanning the 1920s through to the 1940s, are a close look at generational cycles through the eyes of women.
We watch young Margaret Kilker (Rose Riley), an Australian-born child of Irish immigrants (Heather Mitchell and Bruce Spence) fall in love with Hughie Darcy (Ben O’Toole), a young man from a similar background, both trying to make a new life for themselves. Hughie asks Margaret to walk through a house of horrors with him – and so off we go.
We meet them again when they’re older (now played by Anita Hegh and Jack Finsterer) and follow their daughters, the soulful Roie (Riley) and precocious Dolour (Contessa Treffone), as they grow up and begin to know their own hearts. We see how poverty, finely drawn here in the former slums of Surry Hills, is a cycle that continues through generations – and how women are stymied by society for their weakness, but still cultivate their own considerable strength.
Margaret, nicknamed ‘Missus’, is formidable, and so is her mother Eny (Mitchell), and so too are Margaret’s daughters. But they all are marked by the pride, entitlement and sometime cruelty of men. Margaret loses her son to the streets of Surry Hills and her husband to alcohol and a younger woman (Lucia Mastrantone). Roie suffers through a particularly humiliating clinical examination while pregnant; a fellow patient points out that rich women are never proffered as guinea pigs to science. She and her sister suffer multiple instances of abuse and sexual coercion at the hands of men both known and unknown to them. Dolour, in a blazingly contemporary speech that carries the spirit of Park but the 2018-era ferocity of Mulvany, breaks down the ways women of her time are beaten by the world. It’s shockingly relevant, and it’s a bold acknowledgement of the play’s core.
The women most free on stage are those who have opted out of the commonly accepted social order: madam Delie Stock (Helen Thomson, a scene-stealer), who, based on the real-life Tilly Devine, might just be the most honest person in the district, and Sister Theophilus (Mastrantone) and Sister Beatrix (Tara Morice), local nuns with a queer love story of their own. It’s no wonder Dolour admires these nuns for their unencumbered womanhood.
The Surry Hills community of the novels is just as vibrant on stage as you might expect, and the ensemble is strikingly strong; several scenes on opening night ended with spontaneous applause. Mitchell, Hegh, Riley and Treffone carry the play with considerable depth and vastly different, though nuanced, emotional generosities, and so too do the men around them. The world around the Darcy family is full of sensitively constructed, complicated, lovable characters.
The cast of 16 don multiple roles (the exception is the role of the young, lost Darcy boy Thady, shared by Joel Bishop and Jack Ruwald) and each new wig and costume (designed by Renée Mulder) brings a new, exciting element to the stage. It’s a loving portrait of a community under threat: the rapid gentrification of Pyrmont, just down the road on the other side of Paddy’s Markets, is coming for Surry Hills. The class tension of Sydney, a city that has long tried to sweep its poor off the map, is embedded in the heart of this play.
Directed with sweeping, romantic flourishes by Kip Williams, the two-parter barrels along with laughter and tears alike. It’s not afraid to take a moment for an extended comic bit (Helen Thomson reciting different kinds of ‘wort’ for what feels like a full minute is worth the price of admission alone) or for emotional resonance; Margaret is given plenty of time, in a moment of anguish, to consider her trauma and live inside one of Park’s most elegant expressions of a life marked with hardship: “It makes you wonder what a body’s born for.” She stares down her younger self and takes stock of a long line of history, and we do it with her. It’s a moment much appreciated. While some other moments are more rushed – Margaret and Hughie’s late-stage benediction, and Dolour and Charlie’s new connection – the first part is unafraid to take its time.
Mulvany has stitched the plays through with traditional Irish song, all minor keys and balladry, passed down from generation to generation. It’s a moving soundtrack to family – and community – history that traverses the open expanse of the first act of Part One, into the terrace-house structures of Plymouth Street in the second, and keeps us grounded even in Part Two, where David Fleischer’s design feels, unfortunately, less grounded in reality. Composition by The Sweats and Nick Schlieper’s baldly emotional lighting keep us swept up in the story.
To make an epic work of theatre is a near-impossible task; to demand perfection within it seems unfair and almost beside the point. Mulvany and Williams achieved something just as meaningful: an epic in which an entire audience falls in love with its characters. At the end of the second part on opening, after a two-part marathon, that love was palpable. A standing ovation grew like a wave; the actors came back again and again for more curtain calls; Mulvany was brought up on stage to bow with the characters she had revived with such life and such care. It was almost like no one wanted to leave the theatre. The audience didn’t want to say goodbye.