Kate Mulvany has found international fame in 2020 playing gun-toting, Nazi-hunting nun Sister Harriet in the Amazon series Hunters, opposite Al Pacino.
But she will start 2021 closer to heart and home, bringing a stage adaptation of Ruth Park’s iconic Sydney story Playing Beatie Bow — a childhood favourite that she read growing up in Western Australia — to Sydney Theatre Company’s renovated Wharf Theatre in February.
Mulvany wrote the play while in lockdown in Sydney’s inner-west, where she lives.
“It was, in a way, a gift to lock myself away in the world of Ruth and the world of Beatie Bow,” she says.
While she was working on the play, Hunters premiered in Australia and abroad — raising Mulvany’s profile considerably, from a well-known Australian screen and stage actor (including 2019 Foxtel series Lambs of God), playwright (The Seed) and adaptor (most recently, Friedrich Schiller’s historical drama Mary Stuart) to an international star.
Mulvany describes the series, executive-produced by Jordan Peele (Get Out), as “such a gift of a job”.
“Jordan puts together the most amazing team — on-screen and off — and so to be a part of that was very unexpected but just glorious,” she says.
“A lot of those people are either theatre buffs or have made their career from theatre — including Al — so there was a lot of theatre love going on. During the production we’d go and see shows together — and little did we know that across the world, theatres would be shutting down so soon after we finished rolling,” says Mulvany.
In August, Hunters was renewed for a second season.
“I’m so excited to get back in the habit, and sort out some bad guys,” Mulvany laughs.
An iconic Sydney story
Playing Beatie Bow will open in February, directed by Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Kip Williams, launching the company’s 2021 season and marking the re-opening of its renovated Wharf theatre.
Mulvany has been plotting to adapt Park’s time-travel coming-of-age tale since a 2016 conversation with Andrew Upton, STC’s artistic director at the time, who encouraged her to tackle “an epic adaptation”.
At that time, she made a list of potential works that had four of Park’s novels at the top: Playing Beatie Bow and the trilogy Missus, The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange.
All four novels are set in Sydney.
“I love writing for location,” says Mulvany.
In 2018, Williams and Mulvany collaborated on bringing her adaptation of Park’s trilogy to the stage in an epic six-hour, two-part production, winning Best Mainstage Production, Best Direction of a Mainstage Production and Best New Australian Work at the Sydney Theatre Awards.
Williams then asked Mulvany to pitch him ideas for plays that would resonate with the location where STC is based — and she returned to the idea of Playing Beatie Bow, which is set in The Rocks, neighbouring Walsh Bay.
“There was something about that that really appealed to me — to write something for the earth that the audience will be sitting on,” Mulvany explains.
Park’s young-adult novel, published in 1980, uses the premise of time travel to tell a young woman’s coming-of-age story. Her 14-year-old heroine, Abigail, travels back in time to the working-class Rocks district of 1873, where she meets the fiercely independent Beatie Bow and is taken in by her family. (A film version of the book was released in 1986).
“It’s the story of two young women chasing each other in time and space as they’re trying to work out their own roles as young women within this world,” Mulvany says of the book, which she read growing up in Geraldton, Western Australia.
“When I got to Sydney, the first place I asked to go was The Rocks, and I was like ‘This is it, this is Beatie Bow!’ — walking up the little Suez Canal and the alleys that Ruth describes in the book.”
Mulvany returned to The Rocks during her intensive research for the play.
“I did every walking tour there was to do,” she laughs. “A couple of times the guides were like ‘Didn’t you just do this [tour]?'”
Her last tour, in March this year, is particularly memorable: “All the tourists, we all chat to each other while we’re doing these walks … and I said to these people ‘Where are you from?’ and they said ‘We just got off the Ruby Princess’ — that didn’t mean anything at that point!” she laughs, incredulous.
The next time she went back to the Rocks, it was “desolate”.
“There was not a soul to be seen. Everything was shut. We weren’t in lockdown any more, but no-one was out, and it was quite eerie … but in the same way, it was such a clean slate to take the time and look at everything without any noise around me.”
Mulvany says her adaptation will re-interpret Abigail as a contemporary Sydney schoolgirl in the era of social media and the #MeToo movement, and is designed to work for all ages.
“I remember it, my mum remembers it, there are kids now that read it — and it’s still read in schools — so there’s this ongoing passing-on of the story of Beatie Bow that lasts to this day.”
Sydney Theatre Company in 2021
Playing Beatie Bow is one of five shows in “Act One” of STC’s 2021 season, announced Sunday, alongside rescheduled 2020 productions of Jeanine Tesori’s Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home (an adaptation of the graphic memoir by American comic artist Alison Bechdel) and UK writer Laura Wade’s Olivier Award-winning comedy Home, I’m Darling.
Also on the line-up is the Australian premiere of Appropriate, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ acclaimed family drama exploring race in America, which will open in March, directed by outgoing Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch.
Appropriate — which plays on the different definitions (and pronunciations) of the word — is about three siblings who return to their recently-deceased father’s Southern homestead to clear it out and sell it.
Jacobs-Jenkins borrows from classic plays including Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Tracy Letts’ August, Osage County (all of which have had productions at STC in recent years), to explore how American theatre has dealt with the history of slavery — or rather, failed to.
Williams says he was “knocked sideways” by the play, which he saw at London’s Donmar Warehouse in August 2019.
“It lures you in with this extraordinary family drama that’s really funny, and then puts you right inside the histories and problems of America,” he says.
Enoch says Appropriate is “one of the most incisive analyses of whiteness in America that I’ve ever seen — and it takes an African American writer to do that, I think”.
“I think also that there are strong parallels with what’s happening in Australia — we have a similar history.”
Enoch also thinks Appropriate is best interpreted by a Black director: “It crosses lines where you go ‘Am I meant to be laughing at this? Is this funny?’ And it sometimes takes a Black perspective to navigate that — to go ‘OK, let’s push this a little bit harder for fun; let’s push this a little bit harder for pathos’.”
Making theatre in a pandemic
STC will announce “Act Two” of their 2021 line-up in March. Williams says the split season announcement is a response to the uncertainty posed by COVID-19 and government restrictions on live performance.
“We didn’t feel that we could ask audiences to commit to shows in December 2021 just yet,” he says.
In March, STC shut down mid-way through their season of No Pay? No Way! — along with Australia’s live performance industry. They were subsequently forced to cancel or reschedule six shows planned for 2020, including a production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which was to have starred Australian Rose Byrne and her husband, American actor Bobby Cannavale.
Williams says they lost $18 million in box office revenue as a result.
While STC re-opened in September, with a production of the new Australian work Wonnangatta, they are currently limited to 50 per cent audience capacity, per NSW government restrictions.
The company will open their family comedy Rules for Living on Friday, followed in late November by The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Williams says he has been heartened by “how much our audiences have leant in to support the industry in this time, and how much the audience has come back since we opened”.
“And I think if anything the period has revealed to people not only just how important the arts are — because people have turned to music and novels and films in this period to nourish and comfort themselves — but also how much they’ve missed live performance, and how important that experience of connecting to story, live, and to other human beings, on stage and in the auditorium, is.”
Williams says STC are cautiously optimistic that theatres will be back to full occupancy in 2021, if not before.
In the meantime, he says, “STC is COVID-safe, and we will always be operating in line with what the government safety measures are”.
Currently, that includes temperature checks at the thresholds of venues, mandatory mask-wearing in the theatre, socially-distanced seating, and paperless ticketing. Cloakrooms are not currently operating and all payments on-site are cashless.
“With a virus like this, there’s always going to be a certain level of unpredictability. But there seems to be — in theatre and all industries — a growing mindset that we need to learn to live with it, and as long as there is no vaccine, there needs to be a development of a new normal.”
In terms of how the pandemic influenced programming choices for 2021, Williams says he had to be mindful about the kinds of shows he could program: “If there was a show where it absolutely necessitated lots of physical interaction between performers, I would be cautious to program it,” he says.
It has not affected cast sizes — and in fact, he says providing more work is the priority.