The Harp in the South theatre review (Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney)

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One family, three decades. Two weddings, four funerals (an alternative title, perhaps, wisely scuppered).

At least that’s my count. After a day of immersion in multi-generational family melodrama, one can lose track of the numbers. And all the numbers here are dauntingly large.

Two plays, adapted from three novels. A little over six hours in the theatre all up, including a couple of merciful leg-stretching intervals. A cast of 18, some playing up to eight characters. Some 78 scenes, rehearsed over 11 weeks, many with spells of eye-popping (and complexly choreographed) theatrical magic.

Not that any of that is ever very apparent, either the extraordinary effort of the production or the endurance it demands of the audience. It is corralled with such career-defining dexterity by Kip Williams, the Sydney Theatre Company boss and director here, that the stitching is barely visible, the bum-numbing barely noticeable.

Let’s back up. The Harp In The South is the extraordinary debut novel of Ruth Park, the New Zealand-born Aussie who blazed trails as a writer of various forms, from journalism to children’s books, film and television. She followed that 1948 success with a sequel, Poor Man’s Orange, the following year, and much later a prequel Missus in 1985. The first two books were made into TV miniseries; here for the first time actor and increasingly accomplished playwright Kate Mulvany adapts all three into a two-part, five-act stage epic.

Park’s clear-eyed documentation of Sydney’s underbelly – which scandalised a between-wars city that wanted to pretend these people didn’t exist – is presented as unflinchingly on stage by Mulvany. It is nostalgic without being cloying, romantic in all the dirty shades of real working-class life. Amid the weddings, sometimes bittersweet, and funerals, sometimes celebrations, is the clash of class, sex, religion and race. Domestic violence, sexual assault, abortion, suicide, sex work: it plays out on an often empty stage with nowhere for anyone to hide. The harrowing grief is palpable, the violence stark. It’s hard to even imagine what a 1940s audience would have made of it. In 2018, the casual racism sticks in the throat.

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I haven’t read the books. What sustains the soap, I imagine, is the lyricism of the writing. It is unsentimental, or at least earns its moments of sentimentality. It is damn funny, at least here on the stage. Mulvany has her audience rolling in the aisles in parts. Comic writing this good is a rare commodity and is credit mostly to Park, perhaps, but to Mulvany too in mining it and employing it so delicately amid the trauma and tragedy.

If that all sounds like too much hard work for a night or two at the theatre, well, sometimes it is. And what a celebration of life.

We begin part one far from Sydney in the tiny New South Wales town of Trafalga. It’s an Australian postcard of blue skies, parched land and uneasy community togetherness. Boy (Hugh, Ben O’Toole) meets girl (Margaret, Rose Riley) and the love the rest of the story orbits around blossoms.

Margaret’s Irish parents, the ailing John (Bruce Spence, terrific in multiple roles) and ferocious matriarch Eny (the superb Heather Mitchell) are wary. Hugh comes with baggage: lame brother Jer (Guy Simon) and abusive father Martin (Jack Finsterer), who wants nothing to do with them after the suicide of his wife. Hugh and Jer go together “like finger and thumb”, but Jer’s gammy leg is a burden on the new couple.

This first act, a distillation of Missus, is a triumph of design and theatricality, evoking the wide open spaces and the buzz of small-town life. A fairground scene, employing the revolve and a few set pieces, is particularly charming. And when newlyweds Hugh and Margaret move to Sydney to chase vague dreams of something better, their arrival in the big smoke is spectacularly staged like the entry to Valhalla. Credit to set designer David Fleischer, lighting designer Nick Schlieper and the perfectly period clobber procured by costumer Renée Mulder.

This production is notably musical, too. It’s injected with instantly hummable Irish ditties, carefully sourced by Mulvaney, as part of composer The Sweats’ never imposing score. Nate Edmondson’s sound design is well-judged.

What follows is darker, even suffocating. The wide brown lands are replaced with towering grey walls that seem to close in on the characters. Hugh (now played by Finsterer, wound up like a clock) and Margaret (Anita Hegh, always a winning presence and here sustainedly emotionally wrought) are barely making ends meet in the slums of Surry Hills raising two daughters while mourning a lost son. Roie (Riley again, in a part that feels a little under-written) has fallen for Charlie (Simon, demonstrating leading man chops), with enough Aboriginal blood in him to make mum nervous. Incorrigible younger sister Dolour (Contessa Treffone, a real stand-out) is more interested in school than boys. Grandma Eny (Mitchell still, convincingly aged) makes the trip from Trafalga to drive a wedge between the parents.

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Mulvaney’s adaptation over two acts of Harp feels less successful than Missus, perhaps because of the more knotty nature of the book. Certainly, the first play fails to resolve as the stand-alone work it’s billed as. Book both or neither, I say, either on consecutive nights or a single-day binge.

Part two, a two-act adaption of Poor Man’s Orange, begins bleaker still. Those walls seem greyer and higher. The stage can teem with life as the streets of Surry Hills wake up, from Hugh’s fellow factory workers to shopkeepers like Chinese greengrocer Lick Jimmy (a poignant George Zhao) to the ladies that ply their ancient trade each night. With her chain of brothels, Delie Stock (irresistible Helen Thomson, a scene-stealing scream) is the neighbourhood’s shadiest and most successful resident, a canny businesswoman with the requisite heart of gold for her community. In a really wonderful cast, directed with care by Williams, seasoned performers like Tara Morice and Lucia Mastrantone (a pair of lesbian nuns, among others), Benedict Hardie, Luke Carroll and Tony Cogin make the most of minor roles.

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But as the council moves in to gentrify the neighbourhood, evicting houses in narrowing circles around them, the Darcys can’t take a trick. Tragedy strikes with cruel regularity, crushing the spirit of the family and, sometimes, us in the audience. The phrase “poverty porn” is bandied around at interval, though I think it stops short of wallowing in the mud and misery. Again, I haven’t read the books, but Mulvaney’s selective serialisation, too faithful to plot perhaps, can feel uneven at times. It’s a major achievement as imperfect as the mortal coil.

What keeps you going through the next hour of theatre is what keeps the downtrodden, the poor, the abused, the grieving, the seemingly hopeless going through the weeks, months and years ahead. Because, as another two-part theatrical epic reminds us, “the world only spins forward”. Progress is painful. But it’s all there is. The Darcys, and the nation they’re building, are testament to that.

If that all sounds like too much hard work for a night or two at the theatre, well, sometimes it is. And what a celebration of life.

The Harp In The South parts one and two play the Roslyn Packer Theatre in repertory until October 6. Photos by Daniel Boud.

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2 responses to “The Harp in the South theatre review (Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney)

  1. Interesting review Jason, thanks. Saw Part 1 Thurs and Part 2 next Monday. . I was really impressed that the play followed the story, but also included humour which I do not remember from the book and loved those lovely Irish songs😃 looking forward to seeing part 2 and have nothing but praise for this production by STC.

  2. saw both parts on successive evenings, i advise see them both on the same day, as Part One is choreographically wonderful with the movement n set-Part 2 is bare set grey box….though the script n acting do continue in high quality.

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