An affecting story, very well told, which succeeds in making the conveniently forgotten, unforgettable.
Adapted from Kate Grenville’s prize-winning novel, The Secret River presents the ghost of an alternate history: what might have happened if the early Australian settlers had learned to live in peace with those who were already here? Focusing on the relationship of the settling Thornhills with a family of Dharug people, the play highlights how close, how possible, some form of harmonious cohabitation might have been. But the most haunting tragedies tend to be avoidable.
Some eight years after being transported to New South Wales in 1806 for stealing wood, convict William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) receives his pardon and moves his young family up the Hawkesbury River to 100 acres of land on which he means to stake a claim. His wife, Sal (Anita Hegh) reluctantly agrees to farm it with him for five years, on the condition that they would then take whatever fortune they have made and return with it to England. She marks the days on a tree in five-bar gates, unwittingly tracing the property’s first fence. Indeed, despite his promise, William has no intention of abandoning his land. Even as he comes to realise that it is already inhabited by Yalamundi (Roy Gordon) and his family, his resolve to stay only hardens.
Something of an epic, The Secret River boasts an impressive cast among which there are no small parts or performances. Special mention might be made of Jeremy Sims (Smasher Sullivan) and Ursula Yovich (Dhirrumbin/Dulla Djin), both of whom in their own way convey an anger and resentment that is, at times, genuinely unsettling. Director Neil Armfield ignores the old warning about working with children and triumphs with a terrific group of young actors, though wisely decides against pushing his luck and doesn’t use real animals to portray Smasher’s dogs. Instead, we get the likes of Bruce Spence (!), otherwise cast as the wonderfully eccentric Loveday.
This being the STC, the production shines across all departments, from Stephen Curtis’s awesome mountain backdrop to Tess Schofield’s clever use of a chalky residue on the settlers’ faces, which serves to position them as ‘other’ in the audience’s eyes. And one can only imagine the security precautions required to allow the children to have a water fight and then play slip ‘n’ slide across the stage...
The Secret River isn’t without its problems; the first half drags somewhat, and some of the production’s anachronisms are more distracting than others. ‘This is not a story to hide behind layers of muslin,’ says Schofield, and fair enough, but a plastic milk crate featuring as a key piece of furniture just seems a bit careless. Still, it’s an affecting story, very well told, and one which succeeds in making the conveniently forgotten, unforgettable.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
The Secret River
By Kate Grenville
Adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell
Directed by Neil Armfield
Set design by Stephen Curtis
Costume design by Tess Schofield
Lighting design by Mark Howett
Music composition and performance by Iain Grandage
Sound design by Steve Francis
Performed by Nathaniel Dean, Bailey Doomadgee, Lachlan Elliott, Kamil Ellis, Roy Gordon, Ethel-Anne Gundy, Anita Hegh, Daniel Henshall, Trevor Jamieson, Rhimi Johnson Page, Judith McGrath, Callum McManis, Colin Moody, Rory Potter, Jeremy Sims, James Slee, Bruce Spence, Matthew Sunderland, Miranda Tapsell, Tom Usher and Ursula Yovich
Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay
8 January – 9 February
Sydney Festival 2013
5 - 27 January
First published on