By Liam McLoughlin 9/2/2016
Rising for a thunderous standing ovation, we were clapping more than a transcendent piece of theatre; We were applauding an honest reckoning with our dark history of invasion, dispossession and genocide; We were recognising the nuanced, respectful and dignified depiction of Aboriginal Australians; We were celebrating the resilience of an ancient culture.
Some thought of the fortitude of Adam Goodes, there amongst the opening night crowd, when he faced down the humiliating howls of Australian racism. Others thought of Stan Grant’s stirring speech about racism and the Australian dream. All of us were grateful this vital story is now being told and retold in the Australian mainstream.
Adapted from Kate Grenville’s widely hailed 2005 work of historical fiction, the current production is an encore season of the acclaimed sold out run from 2013. The play starts 100 pages into the novel with the arrival of convict William Thornhill in NSW with his wife and two kids. It follows escalating tensions between two families: the Thornhills, who claim ownership over land by the Hawkesbury River, and a family from the Dharug people, who occupy this land.
The play has a devastating inevitability, passing the peaceful roads not taken in Indigenous-invader relations and hurtling down a fatal path leading all the way to the present. The character of Thomas Blackwood embodies the possibilities for more respectful and humble relations. When his wife Dulla Djin brings Sal Thornhill back to life, Blackwood is asked whether it’s some kind of magic and responds 'more like common sense I’d say'.
More than once he advises ‘give a little, take a little'.
Yet the dominant approach spurns the wisdom of Indigenous Australians and according to director Neil Armfield ‘Instead, enabled by gunpowder and fed by ignorance, greed and fear, a terrible choice was made...nine generations later, we are all living with its consequences. The lucky country is blighted by an inheritance of rage and of guilt, denial and silence.’
The performances are uniformly superb. Nathaniel Dean gives a layered performance as a decent family man drawn towards darkness by the desire to escape his own crippling past. Ningali Lawford-Wolf, despite some opening night jitters, has gravitas and the perfect tone as the narrator Dhirrumbin. Richard Piper is hideously compelling as Smasher Sullivan, the one character who is a close approximation of unadulterated evil. Kelton Pell has an incredible presence as the wise, fearless and heroic tribal elder Yalamundi. Trevor Jamieson brings stoicism and dignity to the role of Ngalamalum and his performance in the final scene is sublime.
Stephen Curtis’s gargantuan eucalypt backdrop, Mark Howett’s prominent lighting design, Iain Grandage’s fine score, Isaac Hayward’s marvellous execution on piano and cello and Armfield’s ingenious staging help make The Secret River one of the most exquisite and important plays you’ll see this decade, not just this year.
Another of the play’s many strengths is both families are humanised. Like in the novel, audiences identify with William Thornhill. He is a loving husband and father and seeks a better future for his family. In the words of playwright Andrew Bovell ‘We come to understand that the violence of the past was not undertaken by evil men, by strangers to us, but by men and women not unlike ourselves...Grenville wasn’t writing about them. She was writing about us’. It has more depth than a simple good and evil morality tale and helps explain the violence of the present, whether towards Indigenous peoples or asylum seekers.
Where Grenville left the Dharug people without a voice at the periphery of her story, the play does more to also humanise the First Australians. They are given Dharug names, given a decent share of stage time, and speak the Dharug language. There are questions about whether even these efforts are enough to balance the humanisation of the Thornhills. Torres Strait Islander actor Rachael Maza criticised the 2013 production for not surtitling the Dharug language and the same decision was made for opening night in 2016. She argued this decision limits empathy for the Dharug while much time is spent building empathy for the Thornhills. These criticisms along with her comments about how white privilege and power govern the telling of this story are worthy of debate.
The play succeeds partly because of the intelligent consideration of such questions behind the scenes. Armfield says they’ve been experimenting with surtitles for this encore season but they are unpopular with the cast and ‘it feels somehow limiting – at worst, distracting and reductive’. Bovell has addressed the limitations of the white perspective in telling such stories: ‘This is perhaps the greatest challenge for white storytellers in this country – how do we make sense of what Indigenous peoples thought and felt about the arrival of Europeans...we can only be led by contemporary Indigenous people who with great generosity show us the way back so that we may begin to reconcile with our past.’
In The Secret River, Armfield and his team have twin goals: ‘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’.
In stark contrast to Australia Day, STC’s The Secret River respectfully mourns the wounds inflicted on a 60,000 year old culture while celebrating the resilience and beauty of that culture.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
The Secret River
By Kate Grenville
dapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell
Director: Neil Armfield
Artistic Associate: Stephen Page
Set Designer: Stephen Curtis
Lighting Designer: Mark Howett
Composer: Iain Grandage
Musical Director: Isaac Hayward
Sound Designer: Steve Francis
Cast: Georgia Adamson, Joshua Brennan, Toby Challenor, Shaka Cook, Nathaniel Dean, Frances Djulibing, Jennifer Hagan, Isaac Hayward, Trevor Jamieson, Heath Jelovic, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Madeleine Madden, Colin Moody, Jeremiah Mundine, Wesley Patten, Kelton Pell, Richard Piper, Rory Potter, James Slee, Bruce Spence and Mathew Sunderland.
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay
1 - 20 February, 2016