Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Aug 16 – Oct 6, 2018
Playwright: Kate Mulvany (from novels by Ruth Park)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Joel Bishop, Luke Carroll, Tony Cogin, Jack Finsterer, Benedict Hardie, Emma Harvie, Anita Hegh, Ben O’Toole, Lucia Mastrantone, Heather Mitchell, Tara Morice, Rose Riley, Rahel Romahn, Jack Ruwald, Guy Simon, Bruce Spence, Helen Thomson, Contessa Treffone, George Zhao
Images by Daniel Boud
When Margaret Kilker met Hugh Darcy in 1920, life in rural Trafalgar was idyllic but inert. The couple, both Irish-Australian, young and hopeful, soon headed to Sydney for a brighter future, setting up home in Surry Hills, where they found community, and formed the foundations of a legacy never intended or even imagined.
The Harp In The South is a six-and-a-half hour epic, in two parts, by Kate Mulvany, based on two of Ruth Park’s novels from the 1940’s and another from 1985. Composed mainly of migrant perspectives as experienced by three generations of Irish women, the play offers contemporary audiences a version of our city’s recent history that feels counter-cultural, one that is derived not from contrivances of the establishment, but from stories told by the poor and disadvantaged. All the wonderful things we associate with this city, are built upon the fortitude of those who bear injustice and genuine hardship. Instead of hearing once again about the great white forefathers who take every credit, The Harp In The South restores the voices of forgotten individuals, and places them in the mythical centre of Sydney’s eminence.
Mulvany’s adaptation is exhilarating and witty, replete with irresistible drama, and brimming with inspiration. A palpable soulfulness informs her every manoeuvre, revealing a deep love of the subject and the material, that proves to be completely and profoundly affecting. Although concerned with a cultural specificity, Mulvany’s play contains a sensibility of inclusiveness, that understands the diverse realities of those to whom this story is relevant. The Kilker-Darcy household leads the action, but their truth can only resonate within a context of multiculturalism, and the accompanying portrayals of Indigenous, Chinese, Greek and Italian characters provide not only a degree of ethnological accuracy, they also make an important statement about the way we have, for a long time, sought to share space in harmony.
Director Kip Williams’ vision is exquisite, for a production extraordinary in what it achieves, not only in aesthetic terms, but even more valuable is its promise to galvanise society, through highly persuasive, and sentimental, depictions of our common past, involving all the complexities in our endeavours to be good families, friends and neighbours. Even though the events that unfold are from a different era, every scene rings true, with a familiarity that emanates from its absolute honesty. The Harp In The South is tremendously soulful, and it speaks to all who have an intimate connection with Surry Hills and its surrounds.
Flawlessly designed, the show looks and sounds magnificent. David Fleischer’s sets, Nick Schlieper’s lights and Renée Mulder’s costumes, form an impeccable collaboration delivering theatrical grandeur, with a pervasive and melancholic nostalgia best described as beautiful. Music by The Sweats and sound design by Nate Edmondson, combine new with old, real with abstract, seamlessly cajoling us from one dimension to another, making us laugh and cry at will. The songs we choose to sing, are the truest indication of who we are, and the many melodic renditions of The Harp In The South are like spiritual disclosures, engineered to touch us in the heart and in the mind.
A large cast of actors, play a very large number of characters, each one fabulously evocative, no matter how brief their appearance. Contessa Treffone, marvellous as both Josie and Dolour, is onstage for a substantial portion of this durational challenge, persistently impressive with her spirited and delightful comedy, and triumphant with the integral vulnerability she brings to the show. Margaret and Hugh are brought to life by Anita Hegh and Jack Finsterer, both reliably poignant, but also cuttingly humorous when appropriate. Heather Mitchell too is splendid, and thoroughly amusing, as the matriarch Eny Kilker.
Unforgettably funny, are Benedict Hardie and Rahel Romahn in all their innumerable guises, although Helen Thomson is a clear favourite, unequivocally outstanding with an incomparable volume of laughs, particularly wonderful as the bawdy brothel madam Delie Stock. Lesbian nuns Theopilus and Beatrix are a thrilling pair, performed playfully yet tenderly, by Lucia Mastrantone and Tara Morice, endearing as a sisterly set, and independently formidable in an astonishingly varied range of personalities.
We can proclaim to know ourselves, but art can often surprise with new epiphanies. There is no end to how humanity can understand itself, and it is imperative that we are committed to finding ever greater truths, if we should continue to believe in better tomorrows. We may not be direct descendants of the people in The Harp In The South, but they show us so exhaustively, who we are, as Sydneysiders, as Australians. The shoulders we stand on were not always solid, but all our strength today must be attributed to that past.