Roslyn Packer Theatre, August 25
At its best it’s like wading against the great wash of humanity in peak hour at Central: an endless press of faces registering worry, sorrow, panic, anger and, yes, even joy. Many of the 90 roles leave you bruised as they stream from the pages of Ruth Park’s trilogy of novels and across the stage of Kate Mulvany’s two-part play. And the sheer scale of the enterprise is eye-watering: 700 pages of fiction adapted into 78 scenes for 18 actors across six hours – a huge undertaking for Mulvany, director Kip Williams (Sydney Theatre Company), the principals, ensemble, crew and, as we neared the nine-hour mark (including breaks), the audience.
Mulvany’s ultimate triumph lies in preserving Park’s ability to weave Shakespearian detachment into a suburb-sized blanket spreading warmth to all her characters; to eschew judgment upon this hotchpotch of people from the grimy houses and grubbier streets of Surry Hills after WWII. Their flaws may be wounds that won’t heal, but they seldom turn septic with evil, and they are bandaged with good intentions, strips of kindness, wads of love and, when those qualities are scarce, with resilience.
Mulvany has adapted the first two novels, Missus and The Harp in the South, so astutely that they barely feel condensed. The third, Poor Man’s Orange, is less successful, to which we shall return.
While maintaining the episodic lows and occasional highs of the Darcy family across three generations, the play excavates the hearts of people who know just how mean and narrow their lives are, but who can find no exit signs. Their tragedy is the nexus between this narrowness and their incapacity to express adequately all it engenders. Coping is the zenith of ambition, while leaning on a community as tight as a wet knot.
Before the play slinks between the back-alley prostitutes and abortion-hawkers, however, it roars into action in the two-bit town of Trafalgar, where John and Rowena Kilker (Bruce Spence and Heather Mitchell) pour their passion into making babies, one of whom, Margaret (Rose Riley as a girl; later Anita Hegh), falls for Hugh Darcy (Ben O’Toole; later Jack Finsterer). Spence, who plays five roles, effortlessly conjures five eccentrics, and Mitchell is magnificent in unleashing a guarded Irish heart and an unguarded fury that could tame a continent, let alone a household. Trafalgar does have an exit, and Hughie sweeps Margaret off to a Surry Hills he promises is paved with romance and wealth.
Between them Mulvany and Williams have charged the production with many moments of heightened theatricality (whether poignant or uproarious), such as the women’s chorus weaving flowers into Margaret’s bridal veil, the young Margaret and Hughie confronting their older selves, and, later, the participation by Margaret and Hughie’s younger daughter, Dolour (an engaging Contessa Treffone) in a radio quiz.
Among Mulvany’s departures from Park are an increased weight in Margaret’s unflagging grief over the abduction of her first born, Thady (Joel Bishop), a feistier Dolour, and an emphasis on music that further heightens the theatricality, and imbues Park with faint echoes of James Joyce. Indeed ordinary lives are subtly imbued with the mythic, even in the Darcys’ address: 12Plymouth Street.
In lockstep with the work’s Irish core comes a fierce brand of Catholicism that is as real for the likes of Margaret and Dolour as any tears or dirt; as optional for Hughie as kicking a can down the street. This devoutness breeds an essential tension between chastity and love – outside of which lies sexual commerce, with Helen Thompson offering a wildly entertaining Delie Stock, the madam who spreads more largesse among the needy than does the church.
Rose Riley beautifully catches a sense of “otherness” implicit in Roie: an ethereality, softness and even poeticism that makes her hover just above the squalor. The character that Mulvany, Williamson and actor Guy Simon have had more difficulty in fully realising is Charlie, and part of the problem lies in Poor Man’s Orange seeming excessively condensed, so that Charlie’s grief for Roie and his evolving feelings for Dolour are too rushed. In fact just when Park’s book is at its most compelling the play begins to drag, with cliches appearing like weeds in the dialogue even as the narrative is wildly accelerating.
Similarly David Fleischer’s set – initially endlessly malleable (allowing Williams to maintain a bustling action) – has a more impersonal stasis for the final instalment, just when we needed to zoom in like a close-up in cinema on the heartbreak, guilt and lies. Yet even as the play loses focus in one regard, Anita Hegh’s performance as Margaret intensifies: Hughie’s offer to take her through the fun-fair house of horrors all those years ago was a trip that never truly ended.
Until October 6.