Reviews, Stage, Theatre

The Secret River review (Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney)

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To describe Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River as “powerful” or “moving” seems to sell this piece of theatre a little short. This story of an horrific crime (fictional, although inspired by many real-life events just like it) committed against the original owners of this land is harrowing and at times impossible to watch without feeling a knot in your stomach and an ache in your soul.
And it’s no easier the second time around.
It’s 1813, and William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean), a convict transported from England to New South Wales, has just received his pardon. His wife Sal (Georgia Adamson) is keen to return to England with their two sons as soon as possible, but William has a plan to claim his own parcel of land, just up the Hawkesbury, and make a fortune and life for himself in a strange new land.
But the land is not simply for the taking.
The Thornhills quickly discover that it’s occupied by a group of Aboriginals, and while things start out friendly enough, fear soon takes over the Thornhills, leading the play to its devastating conclusion.
The play is a great ensemble piece, with a cast of 18 indigenous and non-indigenous performers. Nathaniel Dean returns to his leading role as William, and his performance is just as affecting as it was in 2013 — his crisis is beautifully realised. Georgia Adamson steps into the role of Sal, taking over from Anita Hegh. She’s the perfect reluctant pioneer — a woman who finds her strength when she’s forced to.
Ningali Lawford-Wolf takes on the role of Dhirrumbin, the narrator and voice of the Hawkesbury River. She tells this story with clarity and great passion and is the link between what will inevitably be a predominately white audience and the indigenous experience.
The indigenous cast is uniformly strong and their individual worlds are well-defined, despite speaking in Dharug, an indigenous dialect foreign to most of the audience. It’s Trevor Jamieson who makes the biggest impact as Ngalamalum, a warrior in whom William can clearly see himself, and vice versa.
Director Neil Armfield has recreated his 2013 production with a few slight adjustments and some tightening. This time around, it feels like a more evolved and textured production, right down to Iain Grandage’s sweeping and tense score, performed live on stage by Isaac Hayward in this revival.
The score is performed mainly on a piano, which is open with its strings and hammers exposed. It reflects the spirit of Armfield’s production, in which all the theatricality is exposed. When the characters are digging in the rocky dirt of the Hawkesbury, the sound of their shovels making contact with the earth is created by other actors sitting on stage, scraping rocks against steel.
But all aspects of this production are well-designed, particularly Stephen Curtis’ evocative set — a soaring painted scrim representing a eucalyptus tree, stretching high into the wings. Mark Howell’s lighting is just as inventive, capturing the light at every hour of the day as it sweeps through the Australian bush.
Australia may never heal from the atrocities at the heart of this play — the impact is far-reaching and the pain will be with us for generations to come. There’s no simple way out for any of us, indigenous or not.
But telling these stories and acknowledging these horrors seems to be about the best most of us can do right now. In both that sense, and for its sheer, unlikely beauty, this play is compulsory viewing.
[box]The Secret River is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney from February 1 to 20, then tours to Brisbane’s QPAC Playhouse from February 25 to March 5, then to Melbourne’s Arts Centre Playhouse from March 10 to 19.
Featured image by Heidrun Lohr[/box]

3 responses to “The Secret River review (Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney)

  1. Just to note, not only is Dharug a foreign language to most of the audience, it’s also a foreign language to much of the indigenous cast – certainly, neither Trevor Jamieson nor Ningali Lawford-Wolf speak it outside of the context of this show. The wide diaspora of indigenous cultures in Australia is too often reduced to a mono-culture to simplify for a white audience in ways that don’t really help (even in a work as otherwise well-intentioned as “Secret River”)

    1. I’m not a historian, but as I understand it the people living in that area spoke Dharug. Why would there be other languages spoken?

      1. I’m not arguing that there should be. I’m more pointing out that, for instance, Ningali Lawford-Wolf and Trevor Jamieson are not native Dharug speakers any more than the white members of the cast or most members of their audience are (I’m unsure, in fact, whether any of the actors in the show are native Dharug speakers). And there’s a certain discomfort that goes with that.

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