01 March 2007

Harp on the Willow

Harp on the Willow
Presented by Malcolm Cooke and Ensemble Productions
1 March 2007
Comedy Theatre

Mary O’Hara’s story deserves telling and re-telling. Playwright John Misto spent many years searching for her and was thrilled to be able to beat Hollywood and television to the story. If you prefer an episode of Touched By An Angel to a Six Feet Under, then Harp on the Willow will be an ideal night of theatre for you.

Following the death of her husband and years of success and fame as a singer, O’ Hara entered a convent when she was 25. Completely withdrawing from her life, her family and any contact with the world, she was believed dead. Harp on the Willow enters the story 12 years later. She is still a nun and suffering from clinical depression. The only person close to her says that she “lives without joy and despairs of life”.

What could follow is a work about depression, grief and guilt. As a huge crucified Jesus dominates the stage; I also expected that faith, God and belief would be significant themes. All appear in the script, but are about as significant as religion is to The Sound of Music.

Harp on the Willow is written to entertain; not to challenge, question or confront. Jokes appear almost rhythmically – especially nun jokes. According to the audience, there is nothing funnier than a sex/nun joke – except a nun smoking, of course. The jokes break any tension that was developing and continually remind the audience that this is a piece of safe theatre. The delivery and direction ensure that the actors wait for the beat that allows the audience to laugh. This distracts from the drama and reminded me a bit too much of a bad sit com.

The acting style also drifts to the TV soap/sit com style. Marina Prior and Julie Hudspeth both give engaging and enjoyable performances, but neither were convincing as their characters. Prior’s style jumps from “funny nun” to “distraught woman”, but never allows them to be the same person. O’Hara’s depression is only evident by lines in the script, not by her performance.

In contrast Lucy Maunder, as the young O’Hara, and Christopher Stollery, as the man who releases her pain, both present real characters who are able to touch the hearts and minds of the audience. Stollery was skilfully able to balance the drama and the comedy, without distracting from his character. Maunder was working with scenes that could so easily have turned to melodrama, but was able to turn down the drama and subsequently make the young O’Hara’s grief and pain real.

The highlight of the evening is brief an appearance by the real O’Hara. With the help of slides, she briefly talks about her amazing life after the convent. This allows a very happy ending for the audience and makes the past couple of hours on the stage much more real. She has not read or seen the play – and does not intend to. I really wonder what she would think. As she gave Misto the freedom to dramatise, I also wonder why he didn’t explore the obvious themes more thoroughly.

This review origially appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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