THE­ATRE: The Harp in the South.

Kate Mul­vany’s adap­ta­tion of Ruth Park’s still-res­o­nant The Harp in the South tril­ogy for the STC boasts per­fect cast­ing for its darkly comic tale of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and com­mu­nity, writes Steve Dow.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week - Steve Dow

Sydney’s Surry Hills was home to gen­er­a­tions of Ir­ish, Ital­ian and Chi­nese im­mi­grants in the late 1940s and early 1950s – fam­i­lies forg­ing their own com­mu­nity amid tenements, churches, broth­els, gro­cers and fried fish shops. Walk down Devon­shire Street to­day – thread­ing through the ugly road­works to re­in­state the trams that clanged dur­ing the time of nov­el­ist Ruth Park – and you might pass num­ber 212, the shopfront once owned by sly grog­ger and brothel madam Kate Leigh.

Leigh was Park’s main muse for the de­li­cious char­ac­ter of Delie Stock in The Harp in the South, her de­but novel, which won The Sydney Morn­ing Her­ald novel-writ­ing com­pe­ti­tion in 1946. Park en­tered un­der the nom de plume “Hes­pe­rus” be­cause she felt like the ship­wreck af­ter she had fin­ished writ­ing the story.

Its ini­tial news­pa­per se­ri­al­i­sa­tion prompted the lo­cal Catholic Church to de­nounce the work as wicked and im­moral, while a few Her­ald let­ter writ­ers an­grily de­nied the ex­is­tence or wor­thi­ness of chron­i­cling Sydney slum life. Park said An­gus & Robert­son only pub­lished the book in 1948 un­der suf­fer­ance, out of obli­ga­tion to the com­pe­ti­tion. Yet it has re­mained in print ever since.

Kate Mul­vany has re-cre­ated Park’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal fic­tion on stage at the Roslyn Packer The­atre in a two-part, near-six-hour play for the Sydney The­atre Com­pany, with 18 ac­tors. Hav­ing pre­vi­ously adapted Craig Sil­vey’s novel Jasper Jones, Mul­vany again con­nects with the Aus­tralian ver­nac­u­lar of more than a half-cen­tury past as well as both texts’ evergreen cri­tiques of who gains ad­mis­sion to this brit­tle, dif­fi­dent, ca­su­ally racist thing called Aus­tralian iden­tity.

The Harp in the South tells the story of the Darcy fam­ily as they strug­gle to scratch out a life in Surry Hills in the post­war years, with a sprawl­ing com­mu­nity of lodgers and as­sorted ec­centrics or­bit­ing around them. One of th­ese char­ac­ters is Delie, who, like her in­spi­ra­tion Kate Leigh, show­ers a few bob from her “hard work and good busi­ness brains” on the lo­cal un­der­priv­i­leged kids and per­suades Fa­ther Coo­ley, who ad­min­is­ters at St Bran­dan’s, that this money is pro­ceeds from a lottery rather than from the pock­ets of the lo­cal dads af­ter dark. Coo­ley’s church is mod­elled af­ter the red­dish brown­brick Catholic St Peter’s Church that still stands on the cor­ner of Ri­ley Street, just a stone’s throw from Leigh’s old shopfront.

Around the cor­ner on Tu­dor Street, which Park re­named Ply­mouth Street, you might imag­ine an in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled boy, Johnny Sheily, dashing past a bro­ken gate and onto the road with dire con­se­quences. De­spite the waves of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, a house with a steeply pitched red-tiled roof and ivy-cov­ered wall that was said to be Park’s model for 12-and-a-half Ply­mouth Street, where the Dar­cys lived, still stands, but you’ll have to imag­ine Johnny’s mother, Miss Sheily, flag­el­lat­ing her­self be­hind those lit­tle win­dows up­stairs, and Mar­garet “Mumma” Darcy telling her al­co­holic hus­band, Hughie, how lucky they all are.

Mul­vany’s elab­o­ra­tion on the dec­i­ma­tion of com­mu­nity, de­vel­oper-driven greed and struc­tural in­dif­fer­ence to the well­be­ing of our un­der­class, demon­strates why Park’s dark do­mes­tic com­edy still res­onates in the Sydney of to­day. Park was also onto is­sues of in­formed sex­ual con­sent for women, a half-cen­tury be­fore #MeToo.

Like Jasper Jones, The Harp in the South has a miss­ing child at its heart, per­haps here also a metaphor that asks read­ers to search for what else we as a com­mu­nity are miss­ing. Western Aus­tralian-born Mul­vany never met New Zealand-born Park, who died in 2010, but their writerly duet across time shares a con­vivial hu­mour. Heather Mitchell as a spit­fire Eny – Mar­garet’s mother – and He­len Thomson, who plays Delie Stock, de­liv­er­ing her lines in a proud Strine, prove again they are two of our best comic ac­tors.

An hour into Mul­vany’s adap­ta­tion of The Harp in the South, just be­fore its first in­ter­val, a young Mar­garet and Hugh (Rose Ri­ley and Ben O’Toole) and their baby, Thady, trade places with older ver­sions of them­selves – played by Anita Hegh and Jack Fin­sterer – on a re­volv­ing set. I have seen this first part of the play twice and, on both oc­ca­sions, found my­self, on the precipice of tears, clutch­ing the arm rests. Only later did I un­der­stand that I was re­act­ing to a per­fect dis­til­la­tion of mor­tal­ity and the flicker of a hu­man life, as finely re­alised by di­rec­tor Kip Wil­liams.

Many of the ac­tors play mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters in clever ways – the pair who por­tray kindly gay nuns, for in­stance, also play vi­o­lent pros­ti­tutes. In a work that is fore­most con­cerned with the lim­i­ta­tions placed on the lives of women, the key is the per­fect cast­ing of

Hegh as Mar­garet, los­ing her iden­tity as “Mumma” and seem­ingly suf­fer­ing un­di­ag­nosed de­pres­sion, and Ri­ley again as el­dest daugh­ter Roie Darcy, who strug­gles to ar­tic­u­late her­self. Contessa Tr­ef­fone plays her sis­ter, the hope­ful Dolour Darcy, from ages 13 to 18. The sis­terly chem­istry here be­tween them is cru­cial.

The first hour of the pro­duc­tion is ac­tu­ally Mul­vany’s adap­ta­tion of Harp’s prequel, Mis­sus, a novella pub­lished in 1985, set in Trafal­gar in coun­try New South Wales. Given this book strug­gled to find the fo­cus of Harp or its 1949 se­quel Poor Man’s Orange – the in­ci­dents and tally of char­ac­ters are just too crammed – what Mul­vany achieves here is as­ton­ish­ing. She cher­ryp­icks Mis­sus’s best threads, such as Mar­garet meet­ing Hugh in the early 1920s, and fully re­alises the char­ac­ter of young Hugh’s brother, Jeremiah (Guy Si­mon), or Jer – a singing, charis­matic fig­ure with twisted an­kles.

There was no ana­logue for Jer in the orig­i­nal Harp books, so Mul­vany must ex­plain what be­comes of him. We also come to un­der­stand that Hugh’s later al­co­holism may be due to the in­her­i­tance of ad­dic­tion. Com­bined with the post­war en­vi­ron­ment that re­quired sub­sum­ing emo­tions to self-suf­fi­ciency, and the in­se­cu­rity of iden­ti­fy­ing as be­long­ing to an­other coun­try – Ire­land – but never hav­ing set foot there, Hugh’s lin­eage pushes him to­wards that de­struc­tive Aus­tralian no­tion that to be mas­cu­line is to bury your feel­ings in drink.

Other changes in­clude Mul­vany’s choice to re­move the “n” word to de­scribe the Abo­rig­i­nal char­ac­ter, Char­lie Roth (Guy Si­mon, a Worimi ac­tor), which ap­pears many times in Park’s books. While

Park’s orig­i­nal text has Hughie lec­ture Mar­garet that the In­dige­nous were the First Aus­tralians, she also trots out dated clichés about In­dige­nous Aus­tralian

pas­siv­ity, stated as fact: “[Dolour] watched [Char­lie], and was an­gry, and did not know that the an­cient fa­tal­ism and de­featism of his abo­rig­i­nal blood was be­ing thus mys­te­ri­ously man­i­fested in him.” Mul­vany goes a long way to walk back the worst ex­pres­sions of racism of Park’s time, while still mak­ing a point of its in­tent of ex­clu­sion. She also en­larges the char­ac­ter of gro­cer Lick Jimmy (Ge­orge Zhao) safely be­yond Park’s one-note Chi­na­man par­ody.

David Fleis­cher’s elab­o­rate set de­sign, in par­tic­u­lar the fair­ground in the play’s first hour, com­plete with sideshows, may­pole-style merry-go-round and tug-o-war – all aided by a team of mech­a­nists – is fab­u­lous. In the sec­ond hour, the scaf­fold­ing used to por­tray the Darcy home in Ply­mouth Street is al­most wor­thy of cheer­ing be­fore the ac­tors have spo­ken a word. Orig­i­nal mu­sic with an Ir­ish lilt is the thread that links past and present.

The sec­ond part of the play, based on Poor Man’s Orange, is starker in theme, text and set de­sign – as the crush­ing walls of de­vel­op­ment close in around the fam­ily. The choice to go darker should be ap­plauded, as it treats the au­di­ence to a dif­fer­ent tone of play. Mul­vany takes the most li­cence with the orig­i­nal text in the sec­ond part, adding much more of her own di­a­logue in a Park vein in­clud­ing a lib­eral sprin­kling of the word “fuck”.

Some crit­ics have com­plained that a re­la­tion­ship be­tween two key char­ac­ters in the sec­ond part blos­soms too quickly, but this fits with the sense of its in­evitable de­vel­op­ment in Park’s work. As Mul­vany has Dolour say, “I can’t es­cape the Hills, and I don’t know how to fight them.” But in head­ing in a darker di­rec­tion, the play’s sec­ond part does cut too much com­edy – the child-hat­ing land­lady Miss Moon and her house of budgeri­gars might

MUL­VANY’S ELAB­O­RA­TION ON DE­VEL­OPER-DRIVEN GREED AND STRUC­TURAL IN­DIF­FER­ENCE TO THE WELL­BE­ING OF OUR UN­DER­CLASS DEMON­STRATES WHY PARK’S DARK DO­MES­TIC COM­EDY STILL RES­ONATES IN THE SYDNEY OF TO­DAY.

have been too hard to re-cre­ate on stage, but ten­ant Bumper Reilly (Bene­dict Hardie) falls short as writ­ten as a po­ten­tial foil for Mar­garet, and the pathos of his vir­tual home­less­ness gets lost.

Much of Park’s patch­work of tenements and con­nec­tion was soon razed to make way for the North­cott pub­lic hous­ing es­tate, opened in 1961. Pub­lic hous­ing ten­ants of re­cent times have been flung out of Millers Point, just near the Sydney The­atre Com­pany, and will soon be bro­ken up and shunted away from the pub­lic hous­ing com­mu­nity in Water­loo, south of the city. With its truth­ful view of Sydney’s ra­pa­cious greed and the en­croach­ment of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, which has spread through­out the na­tion, undimmed by the decades, The Harp in the South: Parts One and Two de­serves to be

• re­vived af­ter this pre­miere season.

Sydney The­atre Com­pany’s pro­duc­tion of The Harp in the South (above), and Jack Ruwald, Anita Hegh andJack Fin­sterer (fac­ing page).

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