|Photo by Daniel Boud|
A HARP IN THE SOUTH, is a new Australian play in Two Parts, adapted by Kate Mulvany, from the books of Ruth Park: A HARP IN THE SOUTH (1948), POOR MAN'S ORANGE (1949) and a pre-quel to the earlier novels, a late-comer to the Darcy family history, MISSUS (1985).
These books tell of an Irish/Australian family, the Darcy's. The first two books are focused on the family's travails living in the Sydney slum suburb of Surry Hills in the post-war era of the late forties. MISSUS, written almost forty years later, told of the family's pre-history living in a country town, Trafalgar, before the marriage of Hughie and Margaret and their move to urban Sydney. The-prequel is not as successful a book as the original two and in this new stage adaptation Part One covers selected episodes from MISSUS and from THE HARP IN THE SOUTH. Part Two is mostly pre-occupied by POOR MAN'S ORANGE. Part One is approximately three and a half hours in length, while Part Two is told in three hours. The performance schedule is such that you can see both parts over one day or over two separate occasions.
The first two books were a part of my early education. My family are of Irish/English heritage with my mum's side of Irish stock (Faddy) and like the Darcy family came from the country. In our family's history, from Barraba, in North West NSW. The family moved to Sydney in the late 1920's to Coogee, Brook St. I knew my great grandmother, "Little Ma" and great grandfather, "Old Pot", who ran a Pool/Billiard room in Chatswood, and grandma, Kathleen, "Gran" and her 6 sons and 2 daughters - my Mum, Beryl, Aunty Bernice and Uncles: Pat, "Bonza", "Red", John, Bruce and Jim. Grandfather had passed away from consequences of the First World War, in the Prince of Wales Hospital - hence their living in nearby Coogee.
When reading the Ruth Park books, in my early teens, there was a sense of great personalisation/ownership of the world of the family and their story, although, we didn't live in Surry Hills, it was a place I knew because of other relatives living there (as well as in Erskineville and Alexandria). Some of my uncles were taxi drivers and connected to the SP Bookies and Two-Up Schools in the Surry Hills area - I was once sat on the back fence overlooking one of the sewage laneways to 'cockatoo' if I saw any coppers comin' to warn the bookies and customers inside, to skedaddle. Fortunately, I didn't spy any that afternoon and didn't have to squawk. It was, in the fifties, a raffish place stuffed with working class characters surviving in harsh circumstances, dreaming of making a fortune by gambling and, possibly, off the lottery! My personal history explains, perhaps, why I have such an affinity to Peter Kenna's THE SLAUGHTER OF ST. TERESA'S DAY (1959) and A HARD GOD (1972), and Dorothy Hewett's THIS OLD MAN COMES ROLLING HOME (1967) - three plays set in the Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and Redfern area.
There has been another play adaptation of the first book (which I read In the NIDA library, years ago - sorry, don't remember the details!) and a television adaptation made for Channel 10 in 1986/1987 of the first two books, written and Directed by George Whaley - I didn't especially like it, despite some of the actors' work. It all looked so over Art Directed, so clean and 'shiny'.
Kate Mulvany has had to elide and or remove elements and events and characters of the novels - the frustration of any adaptation of a favourite novel, they always leave out some of your favourite 'bits' - and has also 'politicised' some of the content in eliminating some of the male dominations and expanding the women's position in the books for the contemporary play/stage, even exaggerating, in feminist terms, some of the speeches coming from some of the characters. Not, that I think, if, Ruth Park was alive she would not have approved of the bent, if not wished/encouraged less excessive zealousness, in the language to do so - the "Beaten ..." speech spoken by Dolour towards the end of the last play, for example, for me, just a little over-the-top, over-stating.
It is, however, a fairly marvellous achievement and has much to be admired. Dramaturgically, I would quarrel about the over-Irish sentiment in the play adaptation of the last two books and argue for a subtler Irish/Australian characterisation - my uncles were of Irish heritage but were distinctively Australian, not Irish - for instance, I knew few of the musical songs (Irish) that the denizens of this Surry Hills sang a lot of, and longed for a little of the church music that was such a big part of our musical lives, whilst enjoying the radio 'pop' music of the period. And, and, I protest the sentimental close of this production that ought to not have a melancholy ending but, rather, an optimistic beginning - the cycle of the natural world of death and renewal in the tearing down of the slums of Surry Hills for new plans, and that the play look optimistically at renewal - the NEW - as a reflection of the seasons through the Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring feel of the construct of the novels. One should not feel that the marriage of Dolour and Charlie was the sign of an end but rather the hope for the future. I was recalling the Fellini film AMARCORD (1973) that covers a year in the memory of a young boy that observes, after the devastating loss of his mother, the return of spring and the 'blossoming' of a new future, a beginning, for the survivors of the story - a nostalgic revocation rather than a tragic/sentimental death knoll.
The Design of the production, by David Fleischer, is wonderful in the architectural scale of it all - Mr Fleischer's usual stylistic preference - and is especially refreshing in the continuous shaping and zestful energy of the shifting 'frameworks' of the houses of Surry Hills in the second part of Part One. Some friends especially enjoyed Part One, preferring it to Part Two - I argued with them, suggesting that it was the relative lack of visual dynamics in the staging of Part Two, with a static set of looming grey walls (except for the ever active revolve) that dropped their appreciative 'thrill'. Was it the absence, in contrast, of the element of imaginative/visual dynamic of the moving frameworks, that stultified their creative energies of participation? Too, I thought the dominant colour of the Design superstructure of the modern grey (black and white palette!?) was not right. In my memory of living in that era and my re-imagining the time, on reading the books, the colours were of an industrial haze that filtered the light into golden browns/orange, it, flecked with soot and dust, dominating my recall. Surry Hills was warmer, even cozy, in its poverty and fug of industrial, alcoholic fumes of the factories chimneys - jam (and salt - hello Belvoir). Or, am I carrying the archaeological layerings of subsequent memories that I have accrued from the Australian master painters' palettes of the period, of say, Drysdale, Tucker, Dobell, Brack, Perceval, Preston? The Lighting Design is by Nick Schlieper. These observations are kind of carping detail, because the effect of the writing and production is mighty good.
Kip Williams, the Director of this production in epic style, builds on the skills he has been developing, seen in his gigantic staging of CHIMERICA, last year, and honed and superseded here. His management of transition through a staggering number of scene shifts and the management of his 18 actors to create many, many characters has finesse and detail - it is great to see old storytelling form, relatively, uncluttered with unnecessary experiment in technical flourishes - it is as if Mr Williams has discovered that new form can be old form 'done better' - as the character, Con, in the adaptation of THE SEAGULL, STUPID FUCKING BIRD, by Aaron Posner says. The adopting of various styles of storytelling from broad caricatured comedy, to gentler family character comedy, to sentimental melodrama, rough-house realities, with touches of epic poetry, are carried through with an assured confidence of deliberated choice. The integration of all the elements of the production are seamless - for instance, the assembly of the chairs for church and school, done in a twinkling of an aesthetic eye! Especially impressive is the Composition of the atmospheric score of this production by The Sweats, the Sound Design by Nate Edmondson and the Musical Direction by Luke Byrne.
There is a cast of 18 actors, and on occasion, costumed stage hands as 'extras', to fill the stage, and all give a comfortable contribution of Ensemble playing of a high standard. Heather Mitchell, steals every moment that she is on stage as Grandma Eny Kilker - her extraordinary physical and vocal characterisation an object lesson of accuracy and tempered energy that electrifies every intention of Ms Mulvany's storytelling with cracking ease - a delightful cheekiness dare in every moment. One is dared to disbelieve but Ms Mitchell is so convicted that one cannot take one's eyes or ears off of her. Then one asks oneself later: is that Ms Mitchell as Mrs Wiley in the hospital scene with all those doctors in that blonde wig? It is - how marvellously subtle is she? A great Australian actor. Helen Thomson is in very familiar territory in her comic creation of Delie Stock and goes at it with stage relish, but then shows sensible restraint and character in her brief appearance as Brett's Mum - the contrast is remarkable. Bruce Spence has, at last, a series of roles on the Sydney stage that reveals his secure versatility - his catholic priest, Father Cooley is magnificent and is contrasted with his 'music hall' turn as John Kilker, and romantic, courting Swede, Mr Gunnarson. While the subtle drawing of the romantic lead of Charlie Rothe given by Guy Simon is the high point of convincing, moving, truthfulness for me, that has not a whiff of sentimentality about it - the alcoholic despair of his grief over Roie - it is all accurate, clean and gently moving, delicately honed, whilst his earlier brief appearance as crippled Jeremiah (Jer) in the first act of Part One is haunting in its presence and in memory. Rahel Romahn has a stage presence that attracts attention in his delicacy and wit of creation, George Zhao, similarly, makes an impression as 'Lick' Jimmy. Luke Carroll, Tony Cogin, Jack Finsterer, Benedict Hardie, Emma Harvie, Anita Hegh, Lucia Mastrantone, Tara Morice, Ben O'Toole, Rose Riley, Contessa Treffone and young Joel Bishop or Jack Ruwald make up the rest of this excellent company.
THE HARP IN THE SOUTH is an especially good production. The scale of this Australian story on stage with these 18 actors is what a National theatre ought to be about. Large Australian stories with opportunities for many Australian artists to flex their skills and creativity for Australian audiences. I understood that this was one of the projected visions of our 'lost' Artistic Appointee of the Sydney Theatre Company, Jonathan Church. It is a relief to see Mr Williams and The STC taking on that welcome vision with this project - although, next year's season does not follow through, have the promise of this same brilliant scale.
I have seen this production twice. I recommend it thoroughly. Though the books are worth knowing and have the personable ability for you to create with Ruth Park your own version of the Surry Hills, Darcy family, story.