The Secret River
Queensland Theatre Company Presents A Sydney Theatre Company Production
February 25 – March 5 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
This place had been here long before him. It would go on sighing and breathing and being itself after he had gone, the land lapping on and on, watching, waiting, getting on with its own life.
– Kate Grenville
The Secret River is a difficult story to tell. For all the beauty, dignity and depth of this tale, it leads relentlessly into dark places… We want to sit respectfully and reflectively in mourning the genocide that has occurred across this land, but we also want to celebrate the survival of Aboriginal culture against all the forces of dispossession and denial.
And so we keep searching to make it right.
– Neil Armfield
William Thornhill arrives in New South Wales a convict from the slums of London. His family’s new home offers him something he hadn’t dare dream of: a place to call his own. On the banks of the Hawkesbury River, he plants a crop and lays claim to the soil in which it grows.
But the Hawkesbury is already home to another family. A family from the Dharug people, whose existence depends on that land. As Thornhill’s attachment to the land deepens, he is driven to a terrible decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
There is no shame in this story that we haven’t felt already.
I feel a sense of grief and a deep, deep sadness that’s difficult to put into words. This is our story. This is our story too. I write this as a privileged white woman in the country I was brought up to believe I belong in, a place I’ve always felt is mine too. Not mine exclusively, but mine to share, with those who are descended from the original inhabitants, and those who continue to arrive from other places. I don’t think I feel a greater entitlement to this land than anyone else (why would I?), but I feel strongly that this country is my home as much as it is anyone else’s and that it’s okay to feel that way.
It’s really hard to talk about, isn’t it? And it’s even harder to write about. Because now I’ve gone on record to say, aloud online, that I feel I’m at home in this country that’s not mine to claim. And I don’t like to be made to feel unwelcome here, or to feel as if I’m only visiting.
The children get it, of course, all existing in the same space together without suspicion or judgement or blame. They play and bicker and sort out their differences and continue talking and playing and… I wish we could all be more like the children.
A multitude of feelings rendered me speechless after experiencing The Secret River. It’s the first time I’ve felt an audience shudder and breathe as one, through a long, still silence at the close of a show, before the thunderous applause and a well-deserved standing ovation. This is a deeply affecting, life affirming show set beneath the enormity of a single white eucalyptus representing the entire country. When Thornhill insists on scratching his fence into it, just as his wife has marked every day on a wall since they set foot there, I can’t help but cringe.
This is the sort of theatre we all strive to make and we all want to see. It’s theatre that scratches at your skin and makes you cringe and maybe cry, and think more deeply than you did before.
Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel makes The Secret River a seminal work, the newest most important story in the Australian theatrical canon, carefully, thoughtfully and authentically presented, telling both perspectives of a tale so often skewed by the storyteller. There are no sides here, no bias. The tragic events unfold over everyone, and we’re immersed in both worlds. We’re not brow beaten, we’re not defeated…no one is forsaken or forgotten. We’re informed, affected and by the end of the story (for now), despite the inevitable, lamentable tragedy, despite a song of grief that will echo in my heart for years yet, we can choose to feel hope. Each soul is indelibly marked by the end of this show, and we feel we must, in real life, keep searching for a way to make our future together work.
Ningali Lawford-Wolf (Dhirrumbin) “as if called by the song”, appears and shapes the story of the two families at home on the Hawkesbury River, telling it to stir hearts and minds, yes, but mostly so that it is finally told. She is omnipresent, bearing witness to the atrocities against her people instead of turning and running away because “someone had to see it”.
William Thornhill breaks our hearts and mends them with the same ambition, determined to make a home for his family in a land that is already home to so many. Nathaniel Dean nails this role, embodying every aspect of the complex character, from his love for his family and the land, to his pride, his sense of entitlement, his suspicion, compassion, fear, rage, revenge, violence and regret.
London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.
HORROR. BEYOND SADNESS. We’re so close we see Dean’s eyes glisten with the tears Thornhill refuses to shed. His is a measured and masterful performance. When he tosses an old jacket on the ground next to the broken, grieving Ngalamalum it might be the closest he’ll come to making an apology. It goes unnoticed. Ngalamalum doesn’t care. He needs nothing from Thornhill. We have nothing they need.
Trevor Jamieson (Ngalamalum) hands to us the heart wrenching end to the story in the form of a coda, which used to belong to the narrator, Dhirrumbin (in the premiere season in 2013). Jamieson’s rich, sorrowful singing voice adds gravitas as the lights fade to black. I didn’t see the original production but I feel that this must be the more memorable conclusion. Jamieson is, in this moment, the entire story, his people’s whole history. It’s an incredible moment, truly sensational theatre. No one moves, tears trickle freely down cheeks, mine included. No one cares if they are seen to be crying as the lights come up. It would be weird – monstrous – to remain unmoved.
Iain Grandage’s score is all encompassing and I hope he’ll record it, with the inclusion of some of the Indigenous language, perhaps with the ABC’s support, though STC would be wise to quickly and proudly claim such an album. Isaac Hayward plays a cello, percussion and an open piano on stage, coaxing voices from the keys and strings and hammers as if from the landscape itself. He’s truly gifted and what a gift he’s been given in Grandage’s evocative compositions. I also love hearing the musicality of the Dharug family language. There’s no need for surtitles.
Director, Neil Armfield has embraced this cast, this process, and most of all, Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s sweeping story. The result is a rich storytelling experience that leads us gently and firmly to a new foothold in Australian theatre. It’s a place where the Indigenous voice, though it be penned and directed in this case by non-Indigenous artists, rings out loud and clear. And you can say what you will about that, and what needs to happen next (what is already happening, if you’re paying attention, thanks to artists including Stephen Page, Wayne Blair, Wesley Enoch, Bangarra and many more like them), but I say it’s momentous; it’s where empathy and artistry meet.
Armfield has made minute detail epic, framed wretched ugliness within immense beauty, and we see it all through a perfectly clear lens. There’s nothing hidden here. Armfield’s finesse is visible everywhere, from the human connections on stage to the use of the actors as trees and rocks and dogs, to the addition of sound effects created live on stage as the men attempt to dig up the rocky ground. There is further detail in the integral elements of the set (fire, water, earth, flour, charcoal, rope), the smell of the campfire, eucalyptus, gunfire, the inspired costume design by Tess Schofield and lighting design by Mark Howett, and Grandage’s stunning score. The set design by Stephen Curtis cleverly reveals the secrets of the theatre, while retaining the mystery of the land.
The elements combine to create a harrowing, affecting, exquisitely crafted theatrical experience.
At the Opening Night party, after Sam Strong’s speech (warmly and generously offering insight into the journey the creative team had taken to get to this version of the production, and reminding us of the value of good long-term relationships), it was such a pleasure to speak with some of the cast members, incredible performers and beautiful human beings, all. Trevor Jamieson (Ngalamalum) agreed that it was a challenge to produce theatre to the scale of The Secret River and wishes there was a way to share this story under the stars with the wider community who can’t afford the ticket price. Colin Moody (Blackwood) shared with us some of the ways in which Indigenous culture had permeated the rehearsal process, with the company performing traditional smoking ceremonies to clear each sacred (theatrical) space of its negative energies. We talked about the beautiful, gentle ways that other countries embed their First Nations’ culture into curriculum, and community events. The way the Maori culture has become cool, with every kid learning the Haka and in doing so, learning that pride, not shame, comes with knowing and sharing the traditions of the land’s first inhabitants, whether they share their blood or not.
I saw Okareka Dance Company’s Mana Wahine on Friday, the final fitting offering to over 400 delegates from around the world, gathered in Brisbane for APAM2016. It was a fiercely powerful show, a similar spirit in it, a similar story involving courage, determination and fearlessness, but with a very different ending…
So who will see The Secret River? Who will have the honour and privilege of sharing this story? With such a short season in Brisbane and with such high ticket prices, who will it reach? Those who have seen it will agree it’s vital stuff; it needs to reach everyone, and yet it’s unaffordable for so many. I applaud the high production values but I lament the fact that thousands of people in whose hands the future lies, will miss the opportunity to see this show like this. I wonder if it could be filmed…
The Secret River is the ultimate theatrical experience, a complete production, perfectly combining all of the elements, down to the child actors, the musicians and the ash in the fire. Its ritual, rich symbolism, its sense of time and place, its gentle tides and powerful currents pulling us in and out of its story, and its light and unfathomable darkness impress upon our hearts, weighing heavily and making us ache long into the night. (There’s no better theatre than that which makes us ache and think and discuss and debate and dare to dream).
And yes, there is hope. It lies in the hearts and minds of the children, and the adults who will learn from them and choose to lead. Because with knowledge comes responsibility.
We get home at 1am and I hear the sea’s fearless roar. I love its voice. In it is the vastness of this country, its potential, its desire for peace, and all the ancient magic of where we live, where others have lived before us. (We live in Gubbi Gubbi/Kabi Kabi country on the Sunshine Coast). We love it here too. How can we all live and love peacefully in this place? Maybe The Secret River has the answer. Maybe we already had the answer. Maybe we have always had the answer…