The Secret River at the National Theatre review ****

The Secret River

National Theatre Olivier, 29th August 2019

This must have been tough. Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Secret River is an epic production, in terms of the story it tells and the way it tells it, involving numerous creatives and a large cast, over 40 people in total. All came over to headline the Edinburgh Festival and then move on to the NT. And then the heart of the production, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, a leading First Nations activist and performer, who played Dhirrumbin, the narrator of the story, passed away suddenly in Edinburgh. Her family and the creative team agreed to go ahead, Pauline Whyman stepped in and we were fortunate enough to see, (and hear and smell), this marvellous slice of theatre. So thank you all.

Now when I say epic this doesn’t mean the play loses the human dimension. The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s award winning novel, (part of a trilogy), is a fiction intended to explore Australia’s colonial past but at its heart are two families struggling to survive. Ms Grenville was prompted to write the book, following the May 2000 Reconciliation Walk, to understand the history of her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, who settled on the Hawkesbury River. It tells the story of William Thornhill whose death sentence for petty theft is commuted to transportation to New South Wales for life in 1806. He arrives with wife Sal and children and is eventually able to buy his freedom to start afresh. The family’s encounters with the Aboriginal people of Australia, and their relationship with other settlers, good and bad, is explored, culminating in violence. Thornhill’s determination to own and tame “his” 100 acres of land is contrasted with the Aboriginal family’s bewilderment at the very idea and with Sal’s desire to return “home”. Thornhill may be a good man in some ways but cannot stop himself from dehumanising his indigenous neighbours, though by the end his guilt is manifest.

Not having read the book I can’t be sure how tightly Andrew Bovell’s adaptation cleaves to the original story, but director Neil Armfield, associate Stephen Page and dramaturg Matthew Whittet take full advantage of the dramatic opportunity it affords. A simple brown ochre suspended cloth creates a cliff face thanks to set designer Stephen Curtis, Tess Schofield offers simple but authentic costumes and Mark Howett’s lighting is superb. The sound design of Steve Francis and especially the score of composer Iain Grandage, brilliantly realised by Isaac Hayward through piano (keys and strings), cello and electronics, is one of the best I have ever experienced. The full extent of the Olivier stage, and theatrical technique, is used to conjure up this bend of the Hawkesbury River in 1813/14.

The play was first performed in 2013 in Sydney to rave reviews. Which is unsurprising giving just how well the story is told and the power of the message. But you don’t need to be Australian to appreciate that message. The ugly truth of colonisation and the damage done to the culture and society of First Nations people (in Australia and by implication elsewhere) is laid bare but through metaphor not didactically, and the motivations of the characters are made real in actions as much as words. The indigenous Dharug family begins by voicing their apprehension at what the settlers might bring, whilst Thornhill justifies his claim to the land by saying they are effectively nomads who choose not secure land or crops. Curiosity gives way to conflict. Any hope of shared understanding soon flounders on the greed, and/or desperation, of the settlers.

The performances are excellent led by Georgia Adamson as the ruminative Sal, Nathanial Dean as her less thoughtful husband, Elma Kris doubling up as Buryia and Dulla Din, the wife of Blackwood (Colin Moody), Dubs Yunupingu, similarly as Gilyaggan and Muruli, Major “Moogy” Sumner AM as the patriarch Yalamundi, Joshua Brennan as the conniving Dan Oldfield, Jeremy Sims as the vicious Smasher Sullivan and Bruce Spence as the erudite Loveday. (For those of a certain vintage you will remember Bruce as the pilot in Mad Max 2 and 3).

And, of course, Pauline Whyman. Her narration needs to shape and reflect the rhythm of the story, which can’t have been easy after, literally, a few hours of rehearsal. Dhirrumbin is the Dharug name for the Hawkesbury, suggesting, as much of her script does, that she was their long before any human ever arrived. And that she knows how this tragedy will end. It is she that provides the way into not just this place but also the emotional hinterland of the two peoples and, specifically provides the Dharug with a voice for us to understand. Unlike the book the play doesn’t just see these people solely through the eyes of the white settlers. Initially however Andrew Bovell and his team had no language for them to speak. Until actor Richard Green joined the original cast. As a Dharug man he was able to show that their language was very much alive and went on translate and show the cast how to speak and sing it. The Anglicised names of the Dharug in the book could now be reclaimed in their own language and we could begin to understand how they might perceive a history which they had not written.

A theatre saddo, loafer and tightwad like the Tourist can be relied on to fill in the surveys that theatres send out post performance. Do you go to the theatre to be entertained, inspired or educated they say. In the case of The Secret River I can definitively say all three. Equally. And the SO who came along is set to read the book. No higher praise is possible.

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