The Secret River | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft – Rory Potter, Nathaniel Dean, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Kelton Pell and Shaka Cook. Cover – Trevor Jamieson, Shaka Cook, Madeline Madden and Frances Djulibing. Photos – Heidrun Löhr

“We go to the theatre not just to lose ourselves, but to find ourselves….certain plays crystalize the shifting moods of the culture.” So writes John Lahr in his collection of writings on the theatre, Joy Ride.

The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s multi award winning historical novel, does exactly that. It doesn’t rewrite history, but it broadens its perspective to include not just a white colonial view of the early days of the NSW settlement, but also the impact on the indigenous people who already occupied the land.

The STC production, directed by Neil Armfield, opens with a group of Dharug people, centre stage, chatting around a camp fire. It closes with Ngalamalum, a solitary damaged figure beside the campfire and William Thornhill, now the landowner, frantically drawing a fence across the land. Those two scenes – the first, innocent and unsuspecting, the last, ruinous and final – encapsulate the tragic dispossession of the Dharug people, driven out of the Hawkesbury region by the colonial settlers. But both the novel and this production are more complex than a tale of dispossession. The Secret River is the story about a clash of cultures; of people desperate to make new lives for themselves; seizing impossible opportunities; of ignorance, misunderstanding, fear, greed and self righteousness that takes the audience on a journey that begins in hope and ends with a Faustian pact. And while it starts off mildly and good humoured enough, it builds with dramatic intensity, barrelling along to the ultimate, unspeakable tragedy.

This magnificent adaptation is a play on a grand scale. An extraordinary creative team collaborated to bring this epic novel to the stage. Adapted by Andrew Bovell, directed by Neil Armfield, with artistic associate Stephen Page, a musical score by Iain Grandage, lighting design by Mark Howett, costumes by Tess Schofield and set design by Stephen Curtis is a theatrical dream team. The very best in their fields, they have created a work that is breathtaking on every level. Every member of the creative team brings their own poetry to this production, each adding layers of meaning. They have created a work of art with a moral and emotional core that has a universality that resonates beyond contemporary Australian audiences.

Stephen Curtis’s set works perfectly on the Ros Packer Theatre’s stage. It is a vast, enormous, cavernous space, both high and deep, depicting both a sense of grandeur – of something sacred – and of emptiness. The backdrop is a single giant painted white gum. Lacy gum tree branches hang from the edge of the proscenium arch and a small camp fire is set downstage.

There is little doubt that Neil Armfield is our finest director. Time and again, he has given audiences theatrical profound and lyrical memories that we will keep for ever. The staging is nothing short of exquisite and reflects Armfield’s skill at eliciting honest and natural performances in his cast.

Armfield’s ingenious, mesmerising theatre-making flair conjures scenes from nothing, creating poetic images on stage. His ingenuity is not merely enchanting however; it underscores the mythic depth of the production. Actors hold a rope so that it becomes a boat to take the family up the Hawkesbury. At another moment, actors flail the family with little gum tree branches and they step into buckets of mud to signify the muddy trek through the bush to their new land. Rifles are mimed with a raised arm and a puff of corn flour. Nearly every element in the production works at both a literal and symbolic level.

In one scene the nursery rhyme London Bridge is comfortingly sung to the children as a lullaby. Sal loves the songs, “just a little bit of home. Can’t hurt ‘em” she says. In another scene it becomes a malevolent battle cry sung by the settlers as a desperate expression of solidarity and as a way to reinforce their identity as British and therefore superior. Clearly they feel diminished by what they are doing, but the rhyme serves to bolster their determination.

Andrew Bovell’s inspired adaptation starts his version of The Secret River with the Thornhills arriving at their chosen land on the Hawkesbury River. In this adaptation the roles of the indigenous characters have been expanded. In the novel they were written so as to seem foreign and difficult to understand to the white settlers, but in the play we get to know them; we see them cook, eat, play and squabble. We know their names and get to see them as an extended family.

The actors speak in traditional Dharug language, once thought to have become extinct, which they learnt for the production. It is never interpreted for the audience, which works as an alienating device. What they are saying is often baffling to the settlers, but it is usually quite clear to the audience and interpreted by the characters who choose to genuinely listen. Dick quickly understands that his family is being told not to dig up all the yams, but to leave some for the Dharug. To speak a different language on stage and yet to be so well understood is a tremendously difficult thing to achieve and requires a heightened level of expressiveness. It places double the pressure on the indigenous actors, and they all carried it off perfectly. Kelton Pell as Yalamundi, the Law Man and Trevor Jamieson as Ngalamalum were both particularly outstanding.

Bovell says he chose the device of an all-seeing narrator as a way to keep the poetry of the novel’s language and it works marvellously, enriching the metaphors in the production. Like a Greek chorus or Captain Cat from Under Milk Wood, Dhirrumbin (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) overlooks the scenes, commenting on the action, but is never didactic. She describes the grandeur of the landscape and eloquently shares her insight into the lives of the Dharug.

The story is still largely told from William Thornhill’s point of view. Played by Nathaniel Dean, Thornhill is a colonial Everyman, faced with a moral challenge that defeats him. He is hard working, decent, well loved and a good husband and father. His devoted wife, Sal (Georgia Adamson) and their two boys followed him when he was deported to Australia. His experience of abject poverty in London and then the brutality of serving a sentence in the penal colony has made him determined to better himself and provide a decent life for his family. Thornhill sets his sights on a plot of land on the Hawkesbury and moves his reluctant family to the isolated bush that is already inhabited by a group of Aborigines, the Dharug people.

He never thinks for a moment that the land is already occupied. In fact, he is indignant the original inhabitants continue to encroach upon his property. “They’re not like us. They keep moving. They don’t dig down into a place. Put up a decent fence and they’ll get the idea,” he tells Sal.

The settlers dotted along the river have varying reactions to the traditional owners – from acceptance, to tolerance to contempt. At one end of the spectrum, Thomas Blackwood (Colin Moody) has gotten to know the indigenous community and shares his life with them. He advises Thornhill to develop an attitude of “give and take”. When Thornhill asks him when the tribe will move on, Blackwood responds, “You don’t see it do you?...they’re thinking the same thing”.

Similarly, Mrs Herring (drolly played by Jennifer Hagan), is philosophical and is resigned to a détente with them. She doesn’t mind if they raid her veggie patch as long as they leave enough for her. “They help themselves now and then. I turn a blind eye. Way I see it I got enough.”    

Thornhill’s own family have managed to develop good relationships with them. Although nervous, Sal comes to appreciate their company and their young son Dick (played on opening night by Toby Challenor) happily bonds with them and learns their language. One of the most powerful images in the play is Dick holding Ngalamalum’s hand to defend his friendship. This tiny boy, such an innocent figure, the embodiment of goodness, free of the cultural baggage of his elders, looks past their differences.

Conversely, Smasher Sullivan represents the very worst of humanity. He sees the indigenous people as animals. Played like a jocular vaudeville villain by Richard Piper, Smasher takes whatever he can get for himself armed with a whip, rifle and a pack of vicious dogs.

The drama that begins with a just niggling fear builds in fierceness. Rumours are spread, and, empowered by a proclamation in The Gazette that effectively gives the settlers the right to shoot at Aboriginal people if they are problematic, a minor incident is met with unjustifiable force.

We understand Thornhill’s desire to develop a plot of land, to lay down roots and we empathise with his fear about the safety of his family. Because we have empathised with him to this point, the audience is sickeningly confronted when he keeps silent about Smasher’s dehumanising treatment of a Dharug woman and our own morality is directly challenged when he participates in the final dreadful act.

There are some cast changes from the original production. While we might miss Ursula Yovich’s beautiful singing as Dhirrumbin, every new cast member brings fresh insight. Richard Piper’s Smasher is very good. His characterisation is darker and more poisonous right from the start. In a strikingly unaffected, heartfelt and truthful performance, Georgia Adamson’s Sal is brave, generous, frail and funny and struck a chord deep within the hearts of the audience.

Colin Moody’s electrifying performance as Blackwood is even more powerful this time around. Blackwood is the moral centre of the play and Moody is brilliant at playing his unassuming wisdom with a dauntless belief in his convictions. One characteristic could so easily cancel out another, but Moody combines them with subtlety and never defaults to trumped up heroics. He is magnificent.

The Secret River has clearly resonated with both readers of the novel and audiences of the Sydney Theatre Company production. The original production played to capacity audiences in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra and outgoing Artistic Directors, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton have reprised it because, in their opinion, it is the production of which they are most proud.

It has also been made into a three-part television series which will certainly be remembered for the power of its storytelling and for Tim Minchin’s outstanding portrayal of Smasher Sullivan (more of a savage than any indigenous character). As good as it was, I’m not sure that will have a long life.

I am certain, however, that Andrew Bovell’s epic, poetic, richly theatrical adaptation of The Secret River has earned a lasting and significant place in the canon of Australian theatre.

Sydney Theatre Company presents
The Secret River
by Kate Grenville | adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell

Director Neil Armfield

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay NSW
Dates: 1 – 20 February 2016
Tickets: from $64
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 |

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