The Secret River is a play that will settle into the Australian theatrical canon and remain there for a very long time. Sprawling, profound, and often unsettling, it does as Hamlet insists theatre should do, and holds a mirror up to nature.
Adapted by Andrew Bovell from Kate Grenville’s best-selling 2005 book about a 19th century Englishman transported to Australia for theft, and the re-settlement of Australia that set into motions hundreds of years of systemic Aboriginal oppression and abuse, The Secret River has been on Sydney Theatre Company’s to-do list for about six years, ever since Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton took the helm.
Largely made possible by philanthropic donation, The Secret River has been carefully re-shaped from its source material into theatre. Everything works; this is not an adaptation that is embarrassed to be a play. Rather, it embraces the form with solid narrative structure and effective stagecraft. Men shake the leaves that crash against bodies as they run through the bush. Men are dogs, howling, barking. Lines are drawn in the dirt to demarcate space. Composer and musician Iain Grandage scores on stage; he too is drawn into the world, quietly, gently.
The stagecraft in this play is holistic, it’s harmony; each element supports the other, and the actors have a platform to encourage them to tell the story truthfully. The performances weave themselves into the larger tapestry of the play – it’s not a backdrop. It’s just as alive.
The story of the Thornhill family, led by William (Nathaniel Dean), an emancipated convict, is the story of family and place and the parts of our history that are enduringly relatable and entirely unconscionable, as it becomes intertwined with a family from the Dharug tribe. The great theme in Australian theatre and literature, post-colonial as it is, is concerned with a sense of place; The Secret River takes the stage and shows us each layer of that theme: how crucial it is to have a sense of belonging. How difficult it is when that is taken from you. How place means different things to different people, how a sense of place can come from family, community, or physical space, or all three. It demonstrates how human relationships can govern our decisions, and what happens when humanity fails to reach its true and great potential.
Thornhill brings his family – his wife Sal (Anita Hegh) and two young sons – up the river to settle. Give him five years, he says to his wife, to make enough money to take them home. She agrees, wistful for London and her life at home. But Thornhill is seduced by the land, the freedom, the opportunity for a new life. He dreams of a day when his land will be passed down to his sons.
Of course, the land already belongs to someone else. It’s the traditional land of the Dharug people. the Thornhills set up camp and assume that if they wait long enough, the Dharug will disappear from their home. It’s not that simple. Hard choices are made; shocking choices are made. Rougher convicts make rougher ones. Tensions mount.
These family stories, this fraught life, this clashing sense of freedom, is anchored beautifully by Ursula Yovich in a stunning performance as our narrator; she watches, sees, and keeps the story grounded. Full of sorrowful, sincere gravitas, she aches through the play from the beginning.
“This might be the most important work STC produces this decade; it’s certainly the best thing they have produced in years“Classically structured, the play too aches. It has an arc structure that we understand – almost post-morality play, with a touch of Shakespearean tragedy. This narrative formation allows us to fully engage with the play through learned cultural familiarity; we understand the beats of the story and understand its emphasis. The one surprising thing about the structure is commendable: the first act is sprawling and takes time to establish itself, the characters, the dialogue – including the Dharug language, which is spoken onstage. It needed its room to breathe and move slowly, because when the second act begins, we hurtle towards the end at breakneck speed and long for the tranquility of ignorance – and suddenly we understand the characters a little better. Theatre, as a vessel for feeling things, is so acutely realised in this play.
Set design by Stephen Curtis is a triumph; starkly simple, backed by a gigantic eucalypt, it’s immediately evocative of our surroundings. We know where we are. Light plays off the simplicity with surprising agility; the passing of time and shifts of mood are chronicled with a precision that felt effortless. A fire burns downstage right. This is camp, home, for both our families. On stage, we can thoroughly explore the relationship between the Dharug family and the Thornhills, and it is here the emotional connection of the narrative begins to shine. Watching the Dharug boys play ‘statues’ with their friend, Thornill’s youngest son at the top of the second act marked so effectively both the passage of time to show levels of comfort, and also presented quietly the other truth of place: the ease that comes with familiarity. He is growing up with the Dharug boys; he doesn’t have the fear his family does.
The cast is summarily excellent, living in difficult spaces with truthfulness. Dean is strong as the conflicted Thornhill, with Hegh a more pragmatic, at times, yet gentler counterweight. Roy Gordon commands attention with a quiet intensity as Dharug man Yalamundi. Jeremy Sims embraces an unlikable character in the cruel Smasher Sullivan with such precision it’s disturbing, in the right way – this play needed to disturb. The four children, Thornhill and Dharug (Bailey Doomadgee, Lachlan Elliott, Kamil Ellis, and Tom Usher are wonderful. This is a large cast without a single weak link — the ensemble is present, alive, and exceptional.
At the end of the play on opening night, a strong and moving round of applause blossomed into a rolling standing ovation. There was nothing urgent about it. It was the audience giving back to the play the feelings they took from it. It was poignant, affecting, and a sign of the power of theatre no one in that audience will forget.
This might be the most important work STC produces this decade; it’s certainly the best thing they have produced in years.