Ever dug your own dark grave? Ever spent an entire day in said dark grave? Literally, that is, not metaphorically. No? Mary O’Hara did. John Misto’s entertaining bio-play begins with this scene as he maps the real life trials and tribulations of a popular Irish Folk Singer and Harpist. Mary O’Hara was a celebrity at 18 with the world at her feet, happily married at 21 years of age and sadly widowed only 15 months into her perfect marriage to a poet, soon followed by twelve very stoic years in a convent. Ideal subject matter for a comi-tragic play that hints at The Sound Of Music.
Harp on the Willow is ultimately a search-for-god play. It sublimely and comically, unpacks what people do when faced with the schism between ancient tradition and a new generation's hopes. Grief stricken by her husband’s untimely death - the young musician O’Hara (Lucy Maunder) turns her back on a life of fine music, and finds an ascetic life hidden away from the media and mayhem of urban living. The play is largely set in the early 1970’s amongst the wimples, sacral brandy and confessions by the strict Catholic order of nuns at Stanbrook Abbey. The global village of the time is one equally fraught with terror and social cultural change, IRA bombings, Richard Nixon’s Presidency, Mick Jagger and heaven forbid - ABBA fever.
Marina Prior shines in the title role as an untouchable cloistered woman approaching middle age. Sister Miriam Perpetua Selig (the older O’Hara) prefers to spend a day in her own grave so she can hear the sound of the world turn than face the true grieving for her sad past. As it turns out, this ancient rite of grave sitting may well be her saving grace. Under the watchful eye of the wise, not-so-perfect and devilishly funny Mother Raphael Walker (Joan Carden) we follow O’Hara’s awkward transmutation to flesh and blood “holy” woman. With fresh hope and a second chance at a musical career she leaves behind the hallowed world of outmoded catholic rituals and orthodoxies. A metaphor perhaps, for the world in the midst of a countercultural revolution equally as much as leitmotif for midlife-crisis when second chances for an authentic life avail themselves aplenty for those who care to observe them and act.
A key event in her transformation just before she leaves the confines of Stanbrook, is a man, an American. In one of life’s perpetually unfolding coincidences, a cynical down and out drunkard sociopath Tyrone Kane with a very dry wry sense of humour (Christopher Stollery), also finds his way into the sacred convent. Rather naively he too searches for ghosts - the ghost of his late wife. We learn that Kane also lost his partner, and while she was alive she spoke highly of the order of Stanbrook. In turn he visits the order of nuns looking for a sign that she is still nearby, somewhere. He reluctantly seeks counsel with the tempestuous and highly irritable Sister. Through this fated meeting, at a time when both denial and the anger of grief finally raise their ugly heads, so begins Kane’s own transformation - from a derelict to Manhattan lawyer. He confides in the humble sister while she is peeling potatoes and so begins an awkward funny love hate relationship that is eventually infused with white hot sexual tension, beautifully evinced by the nuanced slow-build performances of Prior and Stollery.
The play magically unfolds through a series of songs, hymns, folk tunes and feisty flashbacks to the younger O’Hara (Lucy Maunder) and her young husband, the Poet Richard Selig (Tom Wren). Maunder and Wren’s enervating performances evoke all the hope and wonder of so many teenagers in the late 1950’s. They embody a shiny new generation. Enthusiastically geared towards a new post–industrial world of automation and popular music. While embracing and waltzing with the simpler less technological popular folk traditions like Irish Folk music, ancient instruments with mythic qualities like the harp and romantic poetry. Marina Prior reprises this bygone era with a haunting version of Danny Boy with simple harp accompaniment and it’s a stand out.
Misto’s Harp on The Willow is really about the search for truth by generation Baby Boomer. It focuses on a new generation dissatisfied with orthodox religions, Catholic or otherwise, who start to forge their own beliefs about spirituality, sometimes stumbling and sometimes aided and abetted by the tenets of traditional beliefs. It is also this very same characteristic that makes this play timeless.
Harp on The Willow is beautifully written, although, if there is one criticism it is not the cast, but that maybe Misto’s magical pen has crafted a script that leaves aside the much darker shadowy world of O’Hara’s real spiritual journey. If it were truly darker at times maybe the play would have been awesomely inspirational rather than mildly inspirational. The balanced ensemble focus on subtle yet palpable performances has made this production graceful, entertaining and spiked with Misto’s slightly repressed but demonically wicked good humour. Perhaps in fairness, this is the greatest challenge of all in writing a play about a real life legend who is still very much alive - how shadowy do you go? The masterfully majestic real life O’Hara appears at the end of the play, as a post script - with astonishing results!
Malcolm Cooke & Associates and Ensemble Productions proudly present the Melbourne premiere of
HARP ON THE WILLOW
by John Misto
Starring Marina Prior and Joan Carden with Christopher Stollery, Lucy Maunder and Tom Wren
Venue: The Comedy Theatre | 240 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Dates: 1 - 25 March, 2007
Times: Tues 6pm, Wed - Sat 8pm, Matinees: Wed, Sat & Sun 2pm
Tickets: $39 - $79
Bookings: Ticketek 132 849