With the sprawl of a Dickensian tome, Ruth Park’s monumental trilogy of novels would seem to many devoted fans near impossible to stage. But such fears would be ill-founded, as the wondrous Kate Mulvany has whittled down here, expanded there, and sprinkled her own brand of magic onto these cherished books to create a stage adaptation that is quite simply sublime. She is in magnificent partnership with Kip Williams, whose production so nimbly and poetically brings the story of the Kilkers and Darcys to life.
Jack Ruwald, Anita Hegh and Jack Finsterer in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Harp in the South © Daniel Boud
So deftly you hardly believe it possible, Mulvany has condensed Park’s Missus and Harp in the South into one play, with Poor Man’s Orange a standalone work. Opening on a trembling Frances Darcy (Helen Thomson), she fills her pockets with stones and drowns herself, leaving behind two sons, Hugh (Ben O’Toole) and Jeremiah (Guy Simon). They soon fall in with the Kilkers, an Irish family living in rural Trafalgar, New South Wales. Hugh swiftly falls in love with Margaret Kilker (Rose Riley), the two marrying and setting off to make a new life in Surry Hills.
This is all beautifully done, the creative team making every effort to contrast the open spaces of the country with the concrete and mildew of inner Sydney. Beautiful tableaux interspersed with song and moments of heightened theatricality are hilarious and supremely affecting, with action occurring on a revolve and set pieces whisked on and off at lightning speed. Dreamily lit by Nick Schlieper, the scenes in Trafalgar attain a grand, epic sweep, nowhere more evident than Margaret on her wedding day. It’s a moment so sincere and hopeful that it will put a tear in your eye, particularly for those in the know.
Ben O’Toole and Rose Riley in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Harp in the South © Daniel Boud
We then meet the Darcys – older, wearier, poorer – at their home in Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street, at the moment of what will be enduring trauma for the entire family but especially Margaret, now Mumma (Anita Hegh). Their son Thady (here their eldest, a neat adaptive choice), disappears one day, never to be found again. Mulvany adds further nuance to Hugh (now played by Jack Finsterer) by depicting him as additionally haunted by the disappearance of his brother, Jeremiah. Both are dogged by losses that can’t be assuaged, their attempts to console one another often painfully inadequate.
The cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Harp in the South © Daniel Boud
The assembled cast is uniformly excellent, with many playing multiple roles. Both Hegh and Finsterer are note perfect as the Darcy parents, as are Rose Riley’s tender Roie and Contessa Treffone’s spirited Dolour. But it’s in Heather Mitchell’s Eny and Helen Thomson’s Delie Stock that you almost forget the parts weren’t written for these magnificent actors, so right are they as the fierce matriarch and towering madam respectively.
Helen Thomson in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Harp in the South © Daniel Boud
What stands out about this engrossing first part is how instinctively Mulvany understands Park’s novels. The richness of Surry Hills life is translated to the stage with breathtaking ease, while the difficulties of nascent womanhood are handled unflinchingly and affectingly. Like Park, she centres the women in her story, allowing these complex heroines the space to soar. Whether it’s Roie’s loss of innocence, Mumma’s ongoing grief, or Dolour’s determination to participate in a radio quiz, all these stories are given equal importance in the rich tapestry that we’re presented with. It’s also a piece of theatre that brims with moments of grace, as when Ms Sheily (Tara Morice) mops up the steps after Roie has been attacked.
Guy Simon in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Harp in the South © Daniel Boud
The vitality and paciness of this first part gives way to a soberer second half in Mulvany’s adaptation of Poor Man’s Orange. We open on the residents of Surry Hills staring up at a building we can’t see, the sound of bricks tumbling and glass shattering heralding the beginning of redevelopment and the displacement of families. Every so often the action is punctuated by the sounds of these homes being torn down, and the structures representing the houses of the previous play have been taken away. Where before Surry Hills felt like a rabbits’ warren, crowded and teeming with life, the bareness of the stage in this second part makes those who inhabit it feel ever more vulnerable and helpless.
A slower play, it’s an uneven experience and at times feels more like a coda to the first part than a standalone work. Finely played by Guy Simon, the character Charlie loses some of his complexity in this adaptation. Married to Roie, he is tormented by his feelings for Dolour after his wife dies giving birth to their son. Dolour shares his feelings, something that is a source of a conflict for both characters in the book. However, this conflict barely registers onstage, meaning their ensuing relationship feels rushed and narratively convenient in many ways.
Contessa Treffone in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Harp in the South © Daniel Boud
However, this is a rare misstep by Mulvany that does not take away from the glories to be had in this second part. Grief is further foregrounded in the wake of Roie’s death, and she movingly portrays how the Darcys must learn how to mould themselves around yet another loss. It is unbearably poignant when the ghosts of Eny, Thady, and Roie move across the stage, hands interlinked, just out of reach but still, for a moment, there. Grief is something these people must live with.
Contessa Treffone shines in this second part, her Dolour a pillar of integrity and love. Headstrong and intelligent, she makes clear just how much of a blow it is when Dolour must drop out of school because of her failing eyesight. Treffone traces her gradual maturity with ease and handles well the comedy of her character, movingly playing off George Zhao’s Lick Jimmy.
Anita Hegh and Jack Finsterer in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Harp in the South © Daniel Boud
Hegh is just as impressive, especially when she finds out Hugh has been seeing one of Delie Stock’s girls. Uncomprehending, enraged, and betrayed all at once, it seems an age before she reaches out, silently, to take Hugh’s outstretched hand. Finsterer manages to make Hugh sympathetic despite his selfishness, no mean feat, and both are infinitely moving when running offstage, like a pair of excited children, to buy Christmas presents for their long absent Thady.
It’s this unfailing hope that characterises Park and Mulvany’s characters, and it’s what will stick in the mind long after you leave the theatre. These plays will make your blood sing – they are utterly sublime.
Sydney Theatre Company’s Harp in the South is on at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until October 6