The oldest of theatre magics are bringing the brand-new Wharf Theatre to vital life in Playing Beatie Bow, the first play in Sydney Theatre Company’s home building since it shut down in 2018 for renovations.
The play – Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of the classic Ruth Park novel – uses timeless tricks that even now feel like enchantments. A large swathe of canvas is unrolled and shook; it becomes the glittering waves of Sydney Harbour. A bell hangs from the ceiling and seems to ring entirely of its own accord. And the most powerful of all: a nearly empty stage, with just a lamppost and a few props, conjures The Rocks of 1873 – and 2021 – right before our eyes.
Of course, the theatre itself is situated adjacent to The Rocks; countless Australian children have discovered the novel in schools since it was published in 1980 and know to look for Beatie here in the historic cobblestoned streets; they know that around every corner is the possibility of the impossible, and that makes it so much easier to fall into the world of the play. Even new audiences will sink into the rhythm of the work – director Kip Williams guides all visitors with a steady hand.
We meet Abigail (Catherine Văn-Davies), a teenager unmoored by the separation of her parents. Her father Weyland (Tony Cogin) has had an affair and Abigail is ferociously aligned with her mother Kathy (Lena Cruz). She feels different from everyone else around her; she feels unheard. She dresses in clothing pilfered from op shops and becomes enamoured with a scrap of old cloth that has more power than she knows. After affixing it to her dress, she takes a neighbour child to a park where they watch children play a game called Beatie Bow. And then everything shifts.
Suddenly Abigail is in 19th-century Sydney with the real Beatie Bow (Sofia Nolan) and her family: Granny Alice Tallisker (Heather Mitchell), patriarch Samuel (Cogin), cousin Dovey (Claire Lovering), handsome Judah (Rory O’Keeffe) and young Gibbie (Ryan Yeates). Beatie’s family, originally from Orkney, has long prophesied a stranger that will keep the family’s gift of second sight alive; they’re convinced this is Abigail. Abigail, for her part, just wants to go home. But some connections are too strong to dismiss.
Williams has a clear-eyed handle on this story for the most part, but the production is still learning to calibrate itself as a play for younger and older audiences alike; occasionally his direction gives in to broader strokes and easier wins, but those moments quickly pass and settle again. We are in good hands with this cast, who seem to bring out the best in each other – they shine in a multitude of roles from past to present.
Mulvany opens up the work and allows it to breathe, carefully taking her time to grow the story. The play runs for nearly three hours, but it’s worth it; those long minutes allow for more intricate additions, broadening the scope of the novel to reflect more ideas of shifting Australian identity. Songs – in English and Gadigal, and a lullaby contributed by Phuong Văn – are our touchstones through the story; this play has a habit of calling out to us.
The notion of place and our relationship to it runs through the story, and Mulvany’s script reaches back through history and honours connections that have long been ignored or silenced in fiction and plays by white writers. While we called this place The Rocks as settlers and colonisers moved in and forcibly took the land, it already had its own name: Tallawoladah.
Guy Simon, delivering beautiful work across several roles, plays Johnny Whites, a new character created for the stage. In a play lovingly centred around girls and critical parent-daughter relationships, he stands in love and honour for First Nations families torn apart by racist white policies. After the death of his wife, Johnny’s daughters were taken from him and placed in the Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children. Beatie might feel trapped by the limited options for the life of a girl in the 1870s, and Abigail might feel powerless to the whims of her parents, but their whiteness affords them freedoms still denied to others, no matter what year it is.
The play is better for this habit of reaching out and situating itself more firmly in reality; it means we can feel the timeslip more deeply, and feel supported and secure as the story calls for moments of fear or sadness. David Fleischer’s set is spare and adaptable, a playground for Nick Schlieper’s lights, whose shadows are as important as their illumination. Clemence Williams’ composition (with additional composition by Matthew Doyle) is the play’s internal compass – its music points to the heart and when the cast sings (Natalie Gooneratne is the choral director), they lift us to new feeling.
Mulvany gives the Bow family’s gift a proper grounding in the Spaewife tradition of Orkney, which becomes a thematic touchstone: Spaewives and other healer women across cultures, the formidable Granny tells us, have been calling out to each other across time and space since the beginning of it all, encouraging each other to keep going in the face of loss and hardship and struggle. It’s this ancient lineage of women supporting each other that connects Abigail and Beatie and helps them to find surer senses of themselves. Their love for each other, and the love that surrounds them, is the real gift.
At its heart, this is a play about a community of women united by insight, stories, song and care – a testament to the power of love and its guiding force as we grow into older and hopefully wiser versions of ourselves.
As the first play in Sydney Theatre Company’s revitalised home, it feels like a promise that our stories can be complex and honest and inclusive, that we can rewrite classics to understand ourselves and reflect reality more clearly, and that, most importantly, this is still a space for magic.
Playing Beatie Bow is at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney until 1 May