‘The Secret River’ review

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
The Secret River, EIF, National Theatre, 2019
© Ryan Buchanan

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Ravishing and sobering epic about the displacement of Native peoples in Australia’s early colonial days

Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel ‘The Secret River’ is only modestly known over here, but in Australia it was an award-winning, taught-in-schools smash that did much to crystallize the country’s view of its early colonial years.

And it’s good that Neil Armfield’s 2013 Sydney Theatre Company production of Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation has been revived for this international tour, calling in at the Edinburgh International Festival and National Theatre, because this is our (well, your) story too – it can perhaps be easy for the British to forget that the white people who colonised Australia and took its lands away from the Aboriginal people weren’t ‘Australians’, but the Brits. 

The story follows William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean, coarsely charismatic), a freed British convict in New South Wales at the turn of the nineteenth century. He’s fictional – but he’s largely based upon Grenville’s ancestor Solomon Wiseman, a deported ex-con who was granted 200 acres of Australia land in 1817 – she has described her book as a form of apology to the Aboriginal people he displaced.

Here, Thornhill persuades his wife Sal (Georgia Adamsson) that instead of returning in poverty to London, they and their two sons should grab themselves a plot of land upriver from Sydney, and make their fortune off it. We see the joy that the land and the freedom gives the gruff Thornhill, who has hitherto lived a miserable life on the harsh streets of Georgian London. But we also see the land is occupied: much of the play explores the complicated relationship between the Thornhills and a local Dharug family. At first the two groups are mutually suspicious; eventually they seem to form a sort of truce, as Thornhill proves himself to be a rather more decent man than most of his knavish white neighbours. But as time wears on further, it becomes clear that each side has tragically misunderstood the long term intentions of the other.

Armfield’s production looks and sounds gorgeous and otherworldy – the setter characters are slicked in ghostly white paint, mouth-blown puffs of powder stand in for gunshots, a monolithic sheet of fabric gives Stephen Curtis’s set the impression of having a gargantuan rock behind it. And the air is full of sound, sailors shanties and Aboriginal song, with the cast often picking up instruments, and a valiant effort from multi-instrumentalist Isaac Hayward, consistantly the busiest person on stage. It takes a long time to warm up, and its trajectory feels fairly inevitable, but it is thumpingly powerful, cracklingly atmospheric theatre.

The play was ‘conceived in collaboration with Aboriginal artists’, and features a substantial cast of Aboriginal performers as the Dharug family. They speak Dharug too, although the play has an English-speaking Dharug narrator named Dhirrumbin (Ningali Lawford-Wolf). She provides relatively little insight into what the Dharugs are thinking though, at least not until the end – while there are a lot of good reasons both dramatic and ethical for doing it like this, I maybe felt a tiny bit uneasy about the presentation of the Aboriginal characters as an incomprensible Other. 

Still, that’s something to maybe note rather than ruin the play – this is a huge and impressive piece of theatre, that tells us a story about our own past that we ought to listen to.

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