Theatre

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. By Steve Dow.

The Harp in the South

Sydney Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Harp in the South’
Credit: Daniel Boud

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 brown-brick 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 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.

 

Arts Diary

CULTURE Soft Centre

Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney, September 22

MUSEUM Rome: City and Empire

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, September 21–February 3

CULTURE Sydney Fringe Festival

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until December 3

SCULPTURE Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly

NGV Australia, Melbourne, until February 17

CINEMA Czech and Slovak Film Festival

ACMI, Melbourne, until September 26

OPERA Peter Grimes

QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, September 20 and 22

BALLET Spartacus

Arts Centre, Melbourne, September 18-29

THEATRE A Midnight Visit

655 King Street, Sydney, September 19–October 28

Last chance

THEATRE Hotel Sorrento

Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, until September 15

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 15, 2018 as "Park life". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.