Friday, August 31, 2018

Harp in the South

Charlie, Dolour (above), Rowena
Program Cover
The Harp in the South: Part One and Part Two, by Ruth Park, adapted for the stage by Kate Mulvaney.  Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, August 16 – October 6, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 29

The time came when I knew I had to leave my green islands [New Zealand] and find a wider world, so I went to Australia and married D'Arcy Niland, a young short story writer. For a while we led a wandering life. I saw a little of this vast, magnificent land, and was captured for ever by its noble indifference to humankind. I felt that one day this continent would give a shrug and shake all the humans off into the sea. But it would still be its own self. That's what I call identity.
Text Copyright © 1988 Ruth Park, Photos © Niland Collection.

Ruth Park
Sydney, 1940s
As an Evolutionary Marxist, a late teenager in 1959 with the ambition to write the great Australian novel (despite my very recent £10 Pom arrival), I attached myself briefly to the periphery of the Sydney Realist Writers’ Group, headed by the Communist, Judah Waten.  I was blissfully unaware that Ruth Park had already done what I never managed to do, when she published The Harp in the South a decade before, after it was judged Best Novel in the inaugural Sydney Morning Herald Competition in 1946.

I caught up by performing Lick Jimmy for Broken Hill Repertory Society in 1965. .  Directed by Kay McLachlan, the play was by “writer Ruth Park, adaptor Leslie Rees” but I haven’t been able to source a copy.  Ted Mosher, the Barrier Daily Truth reviewer, wrote under the headline Harp in the South plays well at Repertory “it is a play which will touch your heartstrings presenting as it does a pathetic-cum-humorous picture of the inhabitants of Sydney's poverty-stricken Surry Hills tenement district.”

12½ Plymouth Street, Surry Hills
Photo: Daniel Boud

Kate Mulvaney, in this massive 6 hour adaptation, has added an element of anger to Ruth Park’s novel, which she has Dolour express in a major damning speech about the treatment of women. 

It’s interesting to listen to Ruth Park!/media/1454074/harp-in-the-south
saying “one of the quaintest criticisms was because I wrote about poor under-privileged people I was a communist and in the same mail … I was a capitalist … I was making money out of them.”  She goes on to describe her “absolute bewilderment” because she thought of her book as a “domestic comedy” – “a funny book”.

That’s how I remembered playing Lick Jimmy, who never spoke except for one line in Mandarin as he gave Roie a Christmas present.  The role was comic because he had no toilet in his next door fruit and vegetable shop.  Several times I would knock on the Darcy’s door with an anxious look, hurry through and out the back, reappearing a few minutes later with a satisfied expression, smiling sweetly on my way back next door.
This was the expression of warmth and community in this perhaps 2-hour play in 1965.   I never quite had that feeling while watching a quite fascinating complicated picaresque naturalistic narrative through Part One.  Some way into Part Two, which is staged as a more obviously symbolic drama, I cottoned on to a through-line concept which Mulvaney has used to give purpose to the story. 

In the novel, three elements come and go at times throughout.  The Darcy culture is centred on a romantic view of their ancient pre-Christian Irish heritage, distant in time and place.  In the present is the conflict between the rigid institutional injunctions and the socially inclusive ethics of the Catholic Church.  The third concern is the black-white divide in Australia. 

You may not be familiar with the old Irish figure of Death, who appears in the guise of someone real to take a real person ‘away’.  In Mulvaney’s play, this is the little boy Thady, Hugh and Margaret Darcy’s only son, who disappears aged six soon after they move to Surry Hills.  He reappears to ‘take away’ Hugh’s brother Jer, Margaret’s mother Eny, and his own sister Roie.  J M Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows is the Irish play which encapsulates the feeling, the inevitability and mystery of death which has clearly inspired Kate Mulvaney to open her play with Thady speaking to us.

For the Catholic matter, think of the story of how Australian teacher Mary McKillop became a saint and you’ll recognise Sister Theophilus, Sister Beatrix and Father Driscoll on stage here.

In the novel, Charlie Rothe – who marries Rowena and after her death finally lives on with his son Michael and her younger sister Dolour – has a great grandmother who he knows was Aboriginal.  In despair after Roie’s death, Charlie considers suicide but changes his mind after a chance meeting with an Elder.  In the novel, Ruth Park does not play up the mysterious nature of Aborigines in this encounter, though some of her characters do, at the same time as using the ‘n’ word.  Kate Mulvaney has given Angus McIntosh more to say to Charlie, in the role of an Elder teaching and giving traditional understanding to an uninitiated man, than in the novel.  Ruth Park had Charlie come to his own realisation simply as a result of Angus’ kind treatment of him in his distress.

Charlie and Roie's Wedding
Guy Simon and Rose Riley
Photo: Daniel Boud

So, has Kate Mulvaney done the right thing by her author, Ruth Park?  The Genesian Theatre, in their production some 15 years ago, called The Harp in the South ‘bitter-sweet’.  This Sydney Theatre Company production, though there is often laughter, especially in Part One, is far more bitter, while Park in the novel is surprisingly – and therefore powerfully – even-handed in presenting the motivations, feelings and understandings of her characters across the board, both of the perpetrators and receivers of bad behaviour.  Ruth Park’s calm objectivity shows the individual behaviour as the result social inequity.  In doing so, she exposed the worst of behaviour by men towards women, while her comedy keeps genuine love a real possibility.  Kate Mulvaney’s mood is a little less inviting, I feel. 

The production – as we have come to expect of STC, from the direction by Kip Williams; the stage, costumes, lighting and sound designs; and of course with such a wonderful 20-member cast playing at least 50 characters over three generations – is highly engaging throughout.  I was happy to see Part One at a 1:00 pm matinee and Part Two at 7:30 pm the same day, but since the style of Part Two is quite distinct, it would do no harm to have a day or two’s break between.