Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow throws a sinister enchantment over contemporary Sydney. By Bri Lee.
Playing Beatie Bow
A young woman sits under a lone streetlight eating a sandwich from a brown paper bag. The light flickers, the young woman hesitates: and the light goes out. We are plunged into such sudden and complete darkness that I’m momentarily confused as to whether my eyelids are open. The light comes back on – there’s a girl! She looks like a street urchin from another time. She’s coming closer, raising her arms out towards us. The lights flicker again. She disappears.
The grubby girl is Beatie Bow (Sofia Nolan), from Ruth Park’s classic children’s book. When children chant her name in a playground song, it prompts a sinister and exciting magic: she’s the key to a time slip that hurtles us to her world in 1873.
Playing Beatie Bow represents a reunion of many sorts for the Sydney Theatre Company. In 2018, Kate Mulvany adapted Park’s trilogy The Harp in the South into an epic two-part play that won Best New Australian Work and Best Mainstage Production at the Sydney Theatre Awards. Director Kip Williams has gathered the same production team and some of the same cast for this first production at the newly renovated Wharf Theatre.
The story begins with our heroine Abigail (Catherine Văn-Davies), a 16-year-old caught in the middle of her parents’ nasty divorce. In Ruth Park’s original book, the “present-day” was 1980. A single scroll on a smartphone and a few jokes about Covid-19 flag that in this adaptation the “present-day” is 2021.
An early scene has three women of three generations on stage, firmly establishing the matrilineal guiding star of the narrative. Heather Mitchell delivers a fantastic and dryly funny Margaret – a WASP matriarch. She rattles off estimations of the value of the apartment they’re in, overlooking The Rocks: “Five? Five-point-five?” The chatter is all the funnier as I have just eavesdropped on the price-of-property conversations of several Sydney theatregoers around me. Margaret’s daughter-in-law Kathy – played by a comparatively rough and kind Lena Cruz – is rummaging through a trunk in which she finds a portentous item of clothing.
The youngest woman onstage is Abigail, played by Văn-Davies, who audiences may recognise from SBS-TV’s Hungry Ghosts. Kathy says to Abigail, “Mẹ yêu con” – “I love you” in Vietnamese – flagging that Mulvany’s adaptation isn’t racially homogenous. In the next scene, Abigail is babysitting for a neighbouring family with two dads, one of whom refers to the area as Tallawoladah, its original name.
We quickly learn about Abigail’s problems: she is dismayed that her mother wants to get back with her cheating father, and even more devastated that her mother plans to pack them up and move to Norway in one week. When Abigail unwittingly time slips to Beatie’s world, she’s desperate to find her way back to 2021 before her family leaves without her.
I came to the works of Ruth Park as an adult and, as a recent transplant to Sydney, my appreciation for Park’s work doesn’t match the enchantment her stories have cast over several generations of Australians.
There is supposed to be significant tension when Abigail falls in love with Beatie’s brother Judah (Rory O’Keeffe), as it complicates her need to get back to her own time, but I felt no real sexiness or spark between them. I felt similarly frustrated by a Gilbert and Sullivan-style musical number in the second act. Is the production tame because the protagonist is under 18, or is it because they expect many audience members to be under 18? Either way, it reminded me of the perennial argument around “young adult” fiction, and how young readers love most the books in which an author doesn’t patronise them. Elsewhere in the story, colonialism and sexism are confronted with strength. The people who grew up reading this story are all big kids now, and I would have felt more satisfied with a production more firmly intended for mature audiences. I suspect the force of other people’s nostalgia will carry them over these speed bumps.
I was often surprised and delighted by the design. During a terrible storm the sound of the rumbling thunder and the bursts of lightning had me cowering in my seat. The time shifts are clearly signalled by the replacement of a modern streetlight by a gas lamp – the harsh electricity softens to a warmer glow, accompanied by a slightly menacing fog. Even more extraordinary were the folk songs recurring through scene changes, across the ocean and across time slips. Some were collaborative efforts, but composer Clemence Williams is to be commended. When I heard Kathy singing some of these in Vietnamese, I felt Abigail’s desperation to return to her mother.
A well-calibrated balance of love and pain is woven throughout. Mr Bow’s (Tony Cogin) hands have the unmistakable tremors of a survivor of war who suffers from “battle spells” – what we’d now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Cogin was compelling, shifting from outward to inward outbursts to devastating apologies. Beatie’s cousin Dovey (Claire Lovering) barely leaves the house, afraid of what others will make of the scarring to her face after a fire from a childhood accident has left her “scorched as the devil’s hoof”. Over time she grows more confident. Someone mistakenly presumes Abigail speaks Mandarin and another refers to the “exotic empires of the Orient”. She pointedly replies, “I am not ‘exotic’!”
Sofia Nolan in the title role is exceptional, embodying the stomping impatience and scabby knees I remember from childhood when I was told to “sit up like a lady”. The other standout was Guy Simon as launderer Johnny Whites. From a balcony where he is hanging out white sheets, he tells Abigail that he has three daughters, who were all stolen from him when his wife died. They were taken to live in the Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children, a real place where more than 200 children died. “Tears get you nowhere in this place,” he says to Abigail. “See how white it is.” The double-meaning hangs painfully in the air over all of us. When he sings in Dharug it is devastating.
The promise was that “audiences will walk out with a brand new way of looking at The Rocks”. The play delivers. As I was travelling home from the wharves I looked out over the bay and I really did see it differently. The waves were choppy, their fleeting peaks glinting under the gibbous moon. It was just as Park and Mulvany portrayed it: simultaneously sinister and magical.
I thought of what Abigail had said about The Rocks still being the place people went to drink and dance and fight and love. It was Friday night and I could hear them going at it all. I thought about Johnny Whites and the ongoing displacements by the greedy and racist. I thought about the “spaewives” Mulvany reveres – the women with the gift of reaching forward and backward through time, speaking to each other with warnings and care – and I took a moment to mourn and rage for the women trying to tell us about the predators in the halls of government, even after death.
The play captures these overlapping languages and stories. It trusts its audience with these contradictions and complexities. And it did make me look anew at The Rocks. It seems impossible that so much happened to so many people in such a specific place, without it accruing a few curses and a little magic.
Playing Beatie Bow plays at the Wharf 1 Theatre until May 1.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 6, 2021 as "Slipping through time".
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