Posts Tagged ‘Neil Armfield


The Secret River


The Secret River

Queensland Theatre Company Presents A Sydney Theatre Company Production

QPAC Playhouse

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…


summer of the seventeenth doll

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Belvoir & QTC 

QPAC Playhouse 

23.02.12 – 11.03.12

Everything is temporary…

– John Bucchino

Opening night of Belvoir’s touring production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and QPAC’s Playhouse buzzed… with La Boite type energy! Unheard of! After many a quiet, conservative evening out at QPAC (Rock of Ages not included!), it was a pleasure to be amongst another city crowd who got genuinely, noisily, excited about theatre. Bet the board is happy about that. But then, La Boite and QTC are talking more and more and somebody at QTC this year is really good at getting us talking…

Steve Le Marquand and Alison Whyte. Image by Jeff Busby.

What’s not to get excited about? C’mon! You may have studied it to death, but Ray Lawler’s iconic play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, in this revival by Neil Armfield for Belvoir, is of the highest calibre, like all my dad’s butterflies; captured and neatly killed in a jar of ethyl acetate, perfectly preserved and pinned down, and ending up in a Perspex box on the wall to be admired and wondered at (my dad’s an entomologist so we grew up getting just as excited about dead insects as living ones). Look, this will probably be the best you’ve seen the Doll done. You might not love it but I think you’ll find that, like a fine wine, this is a play that’s getting better with age (the further behind we leave something, the easier it is to look upon it with nostalgia? Of course, this doesn’t apply to Mt Isa and certain ex-boyfriends). Lawler’s classic could be considered the Grange Hermitage of Australian drama and if you miss this vintage, you’ll probably be left to wonder why you didn’t get in on the deal earlier. On the other hand, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. You should see it if only to work out whether or not to join the staunch likers or the wandering, wondering I-don’t-knowers, who are still smiling and nodding.

I’m in two minds about it. I think in Queensland, contrary to our laid-back reputation, we are a fairly excitable bunch. I didn’t get to writing about the Doll earlier because I was so excited about seeing this production that seeing it turned out to be not quite as exciting as the anticipation of seeing it. And I’ve been thinking about it since. And this, wrapped around a bit of a review, is what I’ve been thinking…

Though the cane-cutting days are over, to a certain extent the story still stands, at least in terms of its look at the mundaneness of daily life and the relationships within a strained household. It’s the same these days but different. The characters loom large, like paper dolls; exquisite 1950’s colour cutouts. The wardrobe choices are fabulous. Truly, these are some of our most recognisable Aussie types. There’s the jaded Roo (Steve Le Marquand) and his comical best mate, Barney (Travis McMahon), the cane cutters from Queensland, who spend the long months of the layoff each year at old Emma’s house down south. This year, the seventeenth (I know you’ll count the kewpie dolls too), the group dynamics are a little different, with Olive’s stuck-up city friend, Pearl, coming to stay, Bubba (Eloise Winestock) from next door all grown up and Roo’s rival from up north, Johnnie Dowd (James Hoare), dropping in and upsetting the apple cane cart.

The women in this cast are so strong that, collectively, they outshine the male talent, though fans of Le Marquand will disagree. I disliked his Neanderthal jaw, which seemed to set in stone his character, which was more a caricature than the real guy with real hang-ups and real self-loathing beneath. On the other hand, Alison Whyte as Olive (for the first half of the Brisbane run) is more believable, surviving with and without her Roo. She has her life with him and her independent life, which is just fine thank you very much, without him. Where Le Marquand’s emotion seems overplayed, Whyte’s is – mostly – spot on. There’s a bit of Blanchett in her subtlety and it suits her. If you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. Helen Thomson as the prim and proper Pearl, with her Julia-doing-her-best-to-emulate-Ita pitched voice, almost steals the show. I adore her. I must practice chortling just like her. But then there is Robyn Nevin as Emma, a study in sublime confidence and the nuance of character. Of course we expect nothing less from Nevin. She is our Judi Dench, our Meryl Streep and the price of a ticket is worth seeing her performance alone. These tough women remind me of my mother’s family, sisters under different matriarchal roofs, the mother and the grandmother I hear so rarely about, the daughters learning how to survive together and apart. The stories are sobering reminders of how lucky we are now. Theirs was a different, more difficult, era.

Obviously, being so young myself and not having had the chance to hear it authentically at the time, I find the language and the slang within it, the nasality, the phrasing and inflection on stage all real enough, though at times the acting is too much. We can only hope that the nauseating dialect, for which we are well known as a nation, thanks largely to this play, is a dying sound, reserved for use in the theatre. Rarely. Would somebody tell Gillard? And Hollywood? Thanks.

There is terrific use by the actors, of space offstage, with voices coming from the wings, as if in another part of the house and, at least to the carnivorous amongst us, the appetising smell of sizzling bacon, creating a fourth dimension and lulling us into a false sense of security before the storm. Act 3 is suddenly and dramatically stripped bare; the shock of Armfield’s high walls (like Olive, I hate their colour) brought from his “little corner” at Belvoir, made more imposing than cosy. For a production so intent on its detail, it’s strange to have a kitchen window through which the breeze blows, but out of which we see only black, no matter the time of day. Strange too, to have a set of stairs in Emma’s house, leading to the bedrooms, that appears to be constructed from steel and concrete rather than timber. The working pianola gives us the sense that Emma will not always be around but her legacy will live on and the past will always linger. Are they deliberate attempts to place this play nowhere and at the same time, within an otherwise exact design, precisely “then” and eerily “now”? When I think on them, these ill-fitting elements, along with the over-fought fighting, the over-crawled crawling, the over-shaken shaking etc, work their way into my head like wood rot, spoiling the naturalistic style Armfield would otherwise have me embrace.

This is old-fashioned storytelling but not like the telling of a fairytale, in which we can, through long-practiced habit, lose ourselves in the fantasy. We don’t so much get involved in the lives of these characters as watch and wonder at what’s happening, the way I marvel at the people who inhabit my mother and my aunt’s stories without being able to relate to them. We abhor the treatment of women-at-home and the demands of men-at-work (no matter that the women, in their perfectly applied red lipstick, are away every day pouring beer at the pub for the lazy bastards who are off work for five months and sitting around somebody else’s house without lifting a finger, drinking somebody else’s beer or painting somebody else’s town red). We wonder at the traditions and tawdry expectations of a time gone by. No doubt there is a generation of theatre goers who know these scenes all too well.

We wonder if so much has changed.

Or perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we admire the high production values and relish seeing some of our top actors on a stage in lil’ ol’ Brisbane. I wonder. I can’t help but think what did we need this very expensive, highly regarded piece of theatre to do? And, with regard to the story, the essence of which we think is long-gone; I can’t help but think, with so many friends electing to take on work with mining companies, I’m seeing the same thing happen here now. The men fly in, fly out, leaving the women at work in the home to bring up the children and run a small business to boot! Too bad if she has a notion to continue studying or take up Flamenco dancing! She’s tired and faded and preparing dinner and perfectly applying bright red lippy for when the husband comes home so he sees how much his hard work is appreciated by the Doll he married. It’s a reflection of the saddest aspects of a working class life. Do we have that still? Not like our parents and their parents did. Now we get our red lippy from the Chanel counter! Now we go for drinks and tapas by the water! Now we’re not putting up with the same bloody curtains for sixteen years! Now it’s retro-trend to arrange the flowers in a re-cycled beer bottle! Frankie says so! Everything is temporary, perhaps more so now than ever before. We just can’t bear to live out the long, languid days, accepting second best anymore. We refuse to live that sort of lacklustre life, even if our new, more exciting (across social media at least) lifestyle will be our undoing.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a play I’ve never had a lot of love for. It was a reflection of real life for such a short time. We have a short history and, as a country, we’re moving forward faster than the pessimists (and some playwrights) would have us believe. We’re also keeping a lot of Perspex boxes out. Theatre needs to keep up. Playwrights need to catch up. It’s incredible that we have a revival of a play blessed by its 92-year-old playwright. Now let’s move on. When I go to the theatre, I would rather be swept away by what’s happening in a world that resembles my own, than be asked to look on and observe what’s already happened in somebody else’s droll one. Like an old photo album or the butterflies on Dad’s wall, Armfield’s is a beautiful production, but it’s just not as exciting as I’d thought it would be. Perhaps you thought differently.


summer of the seventeenth doll opens thursday!

How excitement! This revival, the national touring production of Ray Lawler’s classic 1950’s play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, directed by Neil Armfield and starring Robyn Nevin, with whom I once shared the stage in Noosa, opens at QPAC in Brisbane on Thursday.

QTC’s season opener is one of Australia’s most iconic, pivotal plays; a pillar of Australian theatre and a story which has been lauded for 50 years. “Times have changed but the characters still come through,” says 90 year old playwright, Ray Lawler.

The Doll premiered in 1955, at the Union Theatre in Melbourne (where Lawler was Manager at the time) and following a successful Sydney season, toured the West End and Broadway, where it ran for 5 weeks after Lawler refused to change any of the “Australianisms”, which would have made the play more accessible in the American market. Little wonder that Lawler has never watched the British-Australian 1959 film version, re-titled Season of Passion for its American release.

Queensland Theatre Company last staged the Doll at the SGIO Theatre in August 1974. Directed by Joe MacColum, the cast included Diane Berryman  as Bubba, Kate Wilson as Pearl, Suzanne Roylance as Olive, Hazel Howson as Emma, Douglas Hedge as Barney, Frank Gallacher as Roo and Terry Brady as Johnnie Dowd.

Set in Australia in the 1950s, the Doll tells the story of cane-cutters Barney and Roo, who return from Queensland to the Carlton house they share with Nancy and Olive every year, for their annual five-months of fun. It’s been this way for 17 years. This summer though, it’s different.  Barney’s 17-year seasonal girlfriend Nancy has gone and gotten married; so Olive ropes in the uptight Pearl as company for him; while she and Roo, who is flat broke, realise life has caught up with them, and their relationship. Is this really the end?

Starring a superb cast led by Australia’s leading lady of the stage Robyn Nevin, the Doll has been revived; its messages just as poignant as they were when the play was first performed in Melbourne in 1955, forever changing the landscape of Australian Theatre like no other play before, or since. “It’s still about human need, human failings, human flaws, human aspirations,” says Nevin, a member of MTC’s Season 2012 Programming Team.

‘This production of the Doll fell beautifully into our laps. It was already programmed as Neil Armfield’s final production for Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney and I had been cast. But it was only when both Ray Lawler and Neil Armfield made it clear that they would love MTC to take it on that we realised it would be such a perfect fit,” said Nevin.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll stars Steve Le Marquand (Buried Child, Underbelly Razor, Beneath Hill 60) as Roo; the enigmatic Robyn Nevin as Emma Leach; Alison Whyte (Frontline, Satisfaction, City Homicide, Logie, Helpmann and GreenRoom award winner) as Olive Leach; Eloise Winestock (As You Like It, Romeo & Juliet) as Bubba Ryan; Helen Thompson (Getting’ Square, Green Room award winner) as Pearl Cunningham; Travis McMahon (Cloudstreet, Don’s Party, Last Man Standing) as Barney Ibbot, and James Hoare (Noises Off, Twelfth Night) as Johnnie Dowd.

 “Ray Lawler wrote a play against marriage, says Neil Armfield. “Ray held up this amazing mirror and, as great theatre does, it shows us who we are.”

Kewpie Doll from The Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne


        Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, by Ray Lawler

When:                     22 February to March 11

Where:                    Playhouse QPAC

Director:                 Neil Armfield

 Cast:                       Steve Le Marquand, Robyn Nevin, Alison Whyte, Helen Thomson, Travis McMahon, Eloise Winestock, and James Hoare

Set Designer:         Ralph Myers

Costumes:              Dale Ferguson

Lighting:                Damien Cooper

Composer:              Alan John

Sound:                     Paul Charlier

Asst Director:        Susanna Dowling

Under 30 $33; Previews $42-$56; Mid-Week $56-$75; Weekend $60-$79

Tel 1800 355 528 or

About Performing Arts Collection

The Arts Centre’s Performing Arts Collection is Australia’s premier collection relating to the history of circus, dance, music, theatre and opera, and is home to over 450,000 items including costumes, archives, designs and photographs.

Olive. Design by Anne Fraser for MTC's 1977 production, on which Armfield's revival is based.