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Photo by Daniel Boud

Playing Beatie Bow

Sydney Theatre Company presents, PLAYING BEATIE BOW, by Ruth Park, in a stage adaptation by Kate Mulvany, at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay. 28th February - 1 May 2021.

PLAYING BEATIE BOW is a Young adult novel published by Ruth Park in 1980. Ruth Park died in 2010 at the age of 93. The book has had a staunch readership in its brief history and is a favourite for a few generations of young Australian readers. Both Kate Mulvany, the adapter of the novel for the theatre and the Director Kip Williams are two of those long affected readers, they declare in the program notes. I have never read the book even though I have had a long connection to most of Ruth Park’s work and so am discovering this work here on the STC stage. Both the aforementioned artists were responsible for the stage adaption of THE HARP IN THE SOUTH (1948) and POOR MAN’S ORANGE (1949) at the Sydney Theatre Company a couple of years ago – the old gang reunite: “When you are on a good thing stick to it.”

Ms Mulvany has opened, expanded the novel to some contemporary familiarities (an Indigenous story: Johnny Whites for example is introduced that is NOT in the novel) and has set the prologue of Abigail’s rebellion against her warring parents to 2021, not 1980, which is really of not much harm and adds the opportunity of many a wry joke reference to our COVID and Woke culture before our heroine is tripped into The Rocks World of 1873 where most of this story unfurls.

A mere 9 actors take on the many roles required to tell the story and they are all relatively outstanding, every actor has their moment to shine: Tony Cogin, Lena Cruz, Heather Mitchell, Sofia Nolan (Beatie Bow), Rory O’Keefe, Guy Simon, Catherine Van Davies (Abigail) and Ryan Yeates.

The story is told on a huge black stage with a few pieces of theatre furniture that are mostly symbolic of location employing some old fashioned theatrical gestures such as a window frame, ropes suspended with white sheets, a huge canvas covering the whole dynamics of the stage, to suggest laundry or the sails of ships – nothing too imaginatively arresting for theatre goers in 2021 which mean they have a minimum of surprise or magic – it is all a trifle theatrically pedestrian.  Kip Williams has eschewed his usual use of video and film to help tell his tale: examples being in his complicated ambition/aspiration urging (overweighted, I declare) in the recent THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY (though he must be saving on  the budget for the technical gear, let alone the cost of the electricity of each performance for the STC) or either of his versions of two of the great plays CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF or THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI (unnecessary, really).

PLAYING BEATIE BOW follows the imaging of his work in the other Ruth Park theatre adaptations THE HARP IN THE SOUTH  and POOR MAN’S ORANGE – simple open black box with minimal elements of Design, the usual choice of David Fleischer, accompanied by the reliable input of Renee Mulder (Costume), Nick Schlieper (Lighting) and Clemence Williams (Composer – the Director’s sister, I believe) and David Bergman (Sound Designer). The Sound design may be a little too ambitious and or loud to be an unnoticed influencer to the story shaping and telling – in the theatre it was distracting and over dominant.

All of the performances, however, are creditable, but I will note my favourite offers from old-comer Heather Mithchell and a newbie Ryan Yeates, as particularly pleasing.

The biggest obstacles to the popularity of this play may be its wordy length: On opening night running at 3 hours or more and stuffed with so many words, with so much exposition about fairy magic weaving through history and the spaewife myths from the Orkney isles with an aural overload of sometimes impenetrable dialect work from the actors that obfuscates some of what is going on.

PLAYING BEATIE BOW seems to me the ideal program for the Christmas holidays when the young audience is available to catch it in the theatre following on from the highly successful example/policy of the National Theatre of Great Britain. The month of March/April just as school has begun seems an odd Marketing choice – except for the Easter break holiday.

This production has had the honour of opening the renovation of the Wharf theatres and the STC precinct – and impressive in its corporate chic it is. Comfortable new seating facing a wide and deep black hole with no permanent wings or fly tower. One has no ability to ascertain the acoustics of the space as all these actors are microphoned or pre-recorded.

Since the STC is the most important purveyor of Storytelling in our city it is curious that the play or adaptation the Company chooses for this occasion is a white colonial-centred story set in 1873 in the Rocks – the place of so much history in the interaction between the British and the Indigenous tribe(s) – it featured momentarily in THE SECRET RIVER. One wonders whether the honouring of our First Nation’s History of Storytelling in this new theatre space should have been in finding a way to present the story of this island’s history and peoples with their unique creation myths, or even more politically dangerously, an adaptation of the Bruce Pascoe DARK EMU book would have been a better and more appropriate choice? One ponders. 60,000 years of Storytelling – now that could have signified a real celebration of this new sacred space, don’t you think?

PLAYING BEATIE BOW is a pleasant entertainment that needs editing down from its 3 hour length – it is a kind of tough ask for young adults without the whiz bang of contemporary theatre production tricks. Adults, not as engaged in the story as kids, might find it all a bit passé.