The original Sydney Theatre Company Production of The Secret River was a sold-out, multi Helpmann award-winning hit when it was staged in 2013. Directed by Australian theatre legend, Neil Armfield and adapted by playwright Andrew Bovell from Kate Grenville’s stirring novel, The Secret River is currently at the Playhouse, QPAC in Brisbane.
Kate Grenville’s novel of the same name was written first, but is the second part of a trilogy set in the earliest days of NSW.
It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize and long listed for the IMPAC Dublin prize. Bangarra Dance Theatre Artistic Director Stephen Page is Artistic Associate for this production.
It is the story of two families: the English Thornhills and Ngalalamalum’s extended family. Recently pardoned convict William Thornhill, his wife Sal and young sons Dick and Willie. Sal yearns to return to London, while Will resolves that the Hawkesbury will be home.
It was a time when a newly free man and his family could just squat on the edge of the settlement and claim it as their own. But the land belongs to Ngalamalum and his Darug people. Not custodians of the land as successive governments would have us believe, but the owners for nearly 40,000 years.
It is story of love and betrayal: Love between a man and a woman, love of family and love of the land. A good man betrays his own family as well as another man’s to lay claim to land he can’t rightfully call his own. It is also a story of secrets between child and parents and husband and wife.
Ningali Lawford-Wolf is both the narrator Dhirrumbin and Dulla Din, the wife of the character Thomas Blackwood. Her narration allows the indigenous characters to speak the Dharug language and tells the story of both families empathetically.
The staging is deceptively simple with the base of an enormous gum tree as the backdrop. The live fire is the hearth and home for both families. Isaac Hayward supports the story with music that almost becomes an additional character.
It is a brutal tale but what story of colonialism isn’t. It makes me glad to have scant detail of my convict ancestors. The play also holds moments of sheer joy as both families interact, laugh and play.
The Secret River should be compulsory for all junior high school students. Too much of the telling of Australia’s history has been about the struggle of the colonists to tame this difficult continent. This is a story that as invaders we have avoided telling.
This production is mesmerising and disarming. It will stay with you for a very long time. The opening night standing ovation was as cathartic for the audience as it was affirming for the cast.
The Secret River is at QPAC’s Playhouse until March 5 before travelling to the Arts Centre, Melbourne, March 10-19. www.queenslandtheatre.com.au/