Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel The Secret River is, according to director Neil Armfield, “a book that has attracted trouble, culturally.” But it’s also helped to “fan a great wind of debate and consciousness.”
From the perspective of English convict William Thornhill, it tells of a fictional meeting (like many which actually occurred) between white settlers and an indigenous tribe on the Hawkesbury River. A clash of cultures, a battle over the land and a horrific massacre take place. It is dedicated to “the Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future.”
Upon publication, the novel was met with acclaim and a slew of awards (it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize). But it drew immediate criticism from several Australian historians, who claimed Grenville was misusing historical facts to create a more compelling fiction.
Suddenly, a novelist working with a particular history came to be at the centre of a new chapter of the History Wars.
So when Armfield came to direct the large-scale theatrical adaptation of the novel for Sydney Theatre Company in 2013, he was aware he was entering potentially dangerous territory.
Armfield is one of the most successful and significant theatre directors ever produced by Australia and has spent more than four decades helping to shape Australia’s theatrical voice. But telling the stories contained in Grenville’s novel was a unique challenge.
“It felt a very difficult thing to make theatrical poetry from,” Armfield (pictured left) says. “It was Cate Blanchett who had the idea, and the first thing I said was ‘it’s no Cloudstreet, it’s not going to leave the audience going out on a wave of embracing their collective humanity’. But in fact, it sort of has.”
The opening night in Sydney was met with a rare and spontaneous full house standing ovation. The play went on to have critically-acclaimed, sold out seasons in Sydney, Perth and Canberra and picked up six Helpmann Awards.
“I remember Rhoda Roberts coming up to me after seeing it and saying that she’d been waiting for so many years to see this story told on this kind of scale in this place,” Armfield recalls.
Armfield is currently in rehearsals for a return season of the play in Sydney, which will then tour to Brisbane and Melbourne. He says that he hopes the production will be able to travel beyond Australia and that there are ongoing talks with the National Theatre in London; the process has been complicated by the changeover in artistic director at the National from Nicholas Hytner to Rufus Norris.
“I sent the novel to [English playwright] David Hare to read last year,” Armfield says, “and he said something like ‘it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read’, and that he would compare Kate Grenville’s skill with that of Joseph Conrad, and that it wouldn’t be an uneven comparison.”
The stage version, adapted by playwright Andrew Bovell, has become one of the most successful Australian plays of the last decade, but it’s attracted its share of criticism in the years following its premiere.
Artistic director of the indigenous Ilbijerri Theatre Company Rachael Maza raised questions about how the stories of the indigenous characters are told by this predominately white creative team (with the exception of Bangarra’s Stephen Page who serves as artistic associate) in a speech last year.
In Grenville’s novel, the indigenous characters have little to no voice and are largely seen from a distance by the white characters. But in Bovell’s adaptation the indigenous characters, played by seven indigenous actors, have plenty of stage time, clearly defined narratives, and speak in Dharug language.
One of the major criticisms of the production is that it doesn’t use surtitles for the Dharug language, so that much of what is said remains outside the understanding of most of the audience, disadvantaging those characters.
“It’s a complex issue, but it was both mine and Stephen Page’s feeling — because this is how Bangarra shows that use language work — it was about respecting the beauty and the integrity of the language, and it may be a bit of a reductive thing to bring it into English.”
Armfield says that he’s listened to many of the criticisms made the first time around and is experimenting with a number of changes.
Surtitles have now been prepared and the requisite technology set up in the theatre, but Armfield says he’ll wait to see how it’s received in previews and what it detracts or adds to the production before making a final decision.
“I think it brings certain benefits of greater clarity, probably greater humour and greater poignancy at times, but I think there are distinct disadvantages. We talk about it every couple of days, and the cast are pretty much united in their dislike of the surtitles.”
Another of Maza’s criticisms was that the ending doesn’t acknowledge that indigenous culture has survived and thrived following massacres like the one described in the play.
Initially, the play had an epilogue which saw the indigenous cast return in contemporary clothes, but Armfield says the cast felt that it ended up being disrespectful to the full tragedy of the story and it was cut before opening night. A number of different endings have been rehearsed and workshopped this time around, but the staging they’ve settled on isn’t drastically different to the one seen in 2013.
Armfield is non-indigenous, but has spent much of his professional career working with indigenous artists, both as a director and as the artistic director of Belvoir from 1994 to 2011. He says that while he’s still slightly uncomfortable being the deciding voice with some decisions when it comes to telling these particular stories, it’s been a defining aspect of his career.
“It’s something that’s been a very important part of my work and the work of Belvoir, because it’s the story that’s been the most urgent and the most, sort of, crying out for theatrical representation in this country.
“Throughout those years, from the ’80s and ’90s, into the 20th century, there’s been an absolute revolution, I think, in national consciousness. In fact, what has happened is that the nation has been able to breathe for the first time because the lie of Terra Nullius was finally exposed. Everybody knew it was a lie, but it wasn’t really declared until [the] Mabo [decision]. I suppose my work has been part of that wave.”
But given the horrific and difficult truths lying at its core, The Secret River has had a profound effect on all of the artists who’ve worked on it, which is something Armfield hasn’t experienced quite so intensely before.
“This time around, we have Aunty Glendra [Stubbs], who’s a counsellor from the local area. And she’s just there looking out for both black and white performers, because the play can throw up all sorts of traumatic responses. We hadn’t realised that would happen quite so deeply the first time around, but that duty of care has been really seized by the company.”
The play had a unique and similarly strong effect on much of the audience, and looks set to do so again with this return season.
“There was never an empty seat for the show in each space that it played,” Armfield says. “There was clearly an enormous hunger of it. It becomes sort of symbolic, having that experience. You might have read the book, and we all know the truth of those accounts, but there is something in terms of the public ritual of that acknowledgement that I think is so important.”