Left – 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
High expectations are met by The Secret River, a Sydney Theatre Company production bought to Brisbane’s Playhouse stage by Queensland Theatre Company, for a limited season that has already sold out.
The renowned production, which swept the awards pool in 2013, is a powerful piece of theatre, simplistic in its construction and deeply complex in story. An adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel by Andrew Bovell, the play follows the fortunes of convict turned pardoned settler William Thornhill, played by Nathaniel Dean, the family he brings with him to a remote part of a strange new country, and the original owners and inhabitants of the land on which he stakes his claim.
The beauty of this play is in its production. The set is magnificent, created in main by a sweeping swath of fabric that suggests an impossibly tall gum standing ever present over the land Thornhill has claimed and the people upon it. Isaac Hayward creates a soundscape on cello and piano that ties seamlessly with the visual atmosphere and compels the audience to invest in the place and the people who come alive in the onstage world.
A large cast allows for the formation of chorus groups that create the rhythms of this show; they sing joyfully and sing mournfully, they march and skip and count and fall across the stage, manipulating both energy and time. The peak of this effective piece of stagecraft is the trio who embody the enraged dogs of Smasher Sullivan, the ferocity of their barks cutting and relaying the tension built as each scene of the play passes.
The tragedy of this play is in its story, in the inevitability of an end that we all know is coming, wrapped up as it is in a history so often untold, but known. As histories, families and lives intersect and intertwine, we follow William Thornhill as his own history, his fears borne of his injustices, lead him to make increasingly irreversible decisions.
Each cast member is to be commended on their commanding performances; it would be untruthful to single out any one actor’s performance as better than the rest. This standard allows the audience to really engage with story and character, and is what earns the standing ovation they feel compelled to give at the show’s close.
The story told in the The Secret River is one that needs to be told, and not just once but again and again. It is fantastic to see it chosen for main stages, to know that its worthiness is being acknowledged with awards, and to celebrate seeing diversity and honesty in contemporary Australian theatre. But, there is potential for this story and need for this truth beyond, what can be, the inaccessibility of mainstage productions, the ticket prices for which at times reach triple figures and sell out in advance of seasons. To make a show like this not only reach an audience already appreciative of its subject matter, and to compel change and not just catharsis, is the next step forward for Australian theatre.
This play is one fragment of a truth-telling, one imagined group of families, and yet its honesty cuts to the core. If nothing else, this play and the reception it has and continues to receive, makes true the knowledge that there is power in storytelling. Those in the position to tell our stories and shape our discourse have a responsibility to acknowledge this truth, and to create more theatre like The Secret River.
Queensland Theatre Company presents a Sydney Theatre Company production
The Secret River
by Kate Grenville | adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell
Director Neil Armfield
Venue: Playhouse, QPAC
Dates: 25 February – 5 March 2016