STC’s ‘THE SECRET RIVER’

There is a great deal written about Australian history and its bleak and brutal past. There has been a real attempt to tell the stories of white man’s ‘arrival’, the harsh treatment of convicts and their treatment of others, of settlers, of trying to impose an English approach to living off the land and most importantly of all, the prevalence of Indigenous massacres. ‘The Secret River’, Sydney Theatre Company’s first play of 2013, written by Andrew Bovell from Kate Grenville’s book of the same name can now be added to that canon.

I have often said that watching the dramatisation of our history is like watching the Titanic hit the iceberg over and over again. I’m not sure who would qualify as the Titanic in that simile- is it the white man’s good intentions, is it our Indigenous culture, is it humanity? All I know is that whatever hope you had for our story to turn out for the best, encompassed in each narrative of man’s will versus man’s morals, it will be shattered by the end and the debris of what was once grand will lie, floating beyond fixing and forcing us to consider not only the consequences of these actions but also what might have been. The iceberg is the ‘tipping point’, of course, and every damn time we make the decision to abandon ethics and integrity, that ship is going to smash into smithereens.

‘The Secret River’ is not a new story but it’s the story of humanity and it is certainly an accurate representation of our history, more’s the pity. It is a faithful artistic and cultural rendering that reminds us that not every man is a villain but he can become one out of fear. See the ordinary villains, like Smasher Sullivan (Jeremy Sims), him we expect to act with deplorable immorality. But it is the character of William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) we mourn for because he is our everyman. We like him and worse, we are like him. And if he can fall, what does it say about how we might have acted or do still act? That’s where the heart of shame lies in our story.

Director Neil Armfield has taken the beautifully crafted words of Bovell (and Grenville) and created the most important play you’ll see as an Australian this festival season. The mise-en-scene of designer Stephen Curtis is breathtaking and this is one of the smartest uses of the Sydney Theatre- filling the stage with what appears to be the base of a eucalytus tree, thousands of years old, left to grow undisturbed. The added sensory details of the fire, bush clearing, charcoal drawings, rain, all come together to create the aesthetic experience of the Australian landscape at its best with appropriate grand artistry.

Mark Howett’s lighting and the live music provided by Iain Grandage, accompanied by the cast at certain times in the story with Steve Francis’ sound design means that this soundtrack, especially composed for the play, feels like an authentic response to the action, atmosphere and emotions that enhance the epic quality of ‘The Secret River’. It is part of the magic we have come to rely on from both Armfield and Bovell, experts at their craft.

Tess Schofield’s costumes capture the harsh demands of the environment but also the cultural divide and differences whilst allowing the actors every practicality and modesty of situation in the expression of the narrative.

And to the acting. Outstanding. Although an ensemble piece in feel it is led by Nathaniel Dean as Thornhill and Anita Hegh as his wife Sal. They make you believe so solidly in the experience that unfolds in front of you and this is made possible by the incredible support offered by the rest of the cast, too many to mention because each of them deliver in this play. Special mention also for the choice of accent and the vocal coaching of Charmian Gradwell, often overlooked but essential to the historical underpinning of belief in this interpretation.

Some of the golden moments include the transformation from man to dog of Bruce Spence, Daniel Henshall and Matthew Sunderland- a metaphor for mankind and how quickly he can revert into a savage beast ready to protect what he considers his own. There’s the scene where young Dick Thornhill (Tom Usher/Rory Potter) is playing with the Aboriginal boys Garraway (Kamil Ellis) and Narabi (James Slee) with the joyful spirit of a child yet to be corrupted by fear and prejudice or when Gilyangan (Miranda Tapsell) and Buryia (Ethel-Anne Gundy) visit Sal and exchange goods. But most powerful image of all is towards the final stages as the men fill the stage with guns in hands, singing their ‘war cry’ and Thornhill’s fence as the sanctity of the untouched tree base is defiled as Ngalamalum (Trevor Jamieson) lies prostrate by the extinguished fire. Whilst some moments felt a little contrived, ultimately it all created the contrast of culture, of lands and of attitudes and those choices were easily forgiven. Those final lines delivered by our narrator, Ursula Yovich, as she states (and I’m paraphrasing here) that whilst Thornhill was waiting for the Aboriginals to move on, they were waiting for Thornhill to do the same hits you over the head like a hammer. How true that must have been.

I could go on but I suggest instead you go and see it. Whilst I came out believing that this was a good play, the more it sat with me made me feel like it was a great one.

If you want to learn about Australian history, read Grenville’s book or the excellent accounts in Bruce Elder’s ‘Blood on the Wattle’. If you want to experience Australian history, see this play.

And that pit of shame you feel for what happened and what might have been? Remember it.

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5 comments

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bontaks January 27, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Powerful piece, Jane – beautifully written! And I completely agree about the play.

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Anonymous February 2, 2013 at 10:07 am

More than anything else this play reinforces the view that from one generation to the next nothing much really changes, neither the brutal treatment we mete out when necessary to those who thwart our ambitions, nor the smug, self satisfied approach of those who tell the story. Where are the tears for what. it seems we inevitable are/become?

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E Kelly February 20, 2013 at 6:54 am

What did you say? “..the more it sat with me made me feel like it was a great one (play). “ The more I think of this play, and talk it over with people, especially Indigenous people, I know that this play is not a great play, a good play yes – serving up a palatable ‘history’ for the white middle class audience of the STC. Do we really have to tred so lightly? I have read Andrew Bovell’s script Holy Day – this, is a great play – Secret River is not.
I have not read Grenville’s novel, so while I cannot comment on the accuracy of following Ms Grenville’s story (I am told the play is not entirely true to the novel) I can comment on Bovell’s play. With commissions certainly must come constraints on the writer? Do you disagree? Read Bovell’s unrestrained Holy Day, then answer me.

If Bovell had not been constrained, why did he not write (or indeed did he and it was cut) that after the Aboriginal family was shot dead, murdered – why did he not have the murderers drag the bodies centre stage and throw them into a heap one on top of the other – the children being flung up last of all – and then have Thornhill say “Bring wood, we need fire.” Or “Get wood so we can burn the black scum/bastards and get rid of them” etc…? And have the men leave the stage to gather wood, with limbs still trembling in the heap of bodies, and soft/ or not so, groaning of the wounded, and lights come down – then the narrator come on in subdued lighting – saying the smoke was seen for days from the burning of the bodies etc? Theatre is about showing not telling is it not? – Yet this obvious opportunity, to take the audience to experience the horror of what truly happened, time and time again in our history, was missed – WHY? To protect the sensibilities of the audience? Have we not seen the reels of footage over and over again of the dead /murdered victims of the Nazis being thrown into heaps to be burnt or buried? And the Balkans? Rwanda? But not in Australia?

I wanted more of the Aboriginal family, not on and on as to see why the whites should be exonerated for their crimes! Why not have translation from the Darug language to English? Then we could have had a more complex conversation from the Indigenous people, been drawn into their lives/family. Way too noble/romantic/passive/savages/childlike types, for my reality of what truly must have happened.

I loved the set. Jane, “some moments seemed a little bit contrived”? I was embarrassed in parts. Cheered at the end yes, as offerings, such as they are, from a major theatre are to be welcomed, or there may not be better ones to come.

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jane February 20, 2013 at 7:31 am

E Kelly- I have read 'Holy Day' and agree in regards to its power and punch but Bovell is the first to admit as a white middle-class man, representing the Indigenous voice is a tricky beast. Who's story is it? In 'Holy Day' it becomes Nora's and Elizabeth's stories intermingled with the convicts and Wakefield and our Indigenous characters remind us of the power and brutality that comes with already being outcasts in a land whose harsh conditions render any power fortifying. I probably haven't expressed that well but what I'm saying is that we can't help making our points from a white perspective, no matter how sympathetic to the Indigenous people.

I think Grenville herself in the novel (and I could be wrong) doesn't even give her Indigenous characters a voice- and that is part of its power. They are invisible except as objects and obstacles. Bovell had to write a voice for these characters and by playing with the Durag language, I think the fact we can't understand them (as a predominantly white middle-class audience)is really important. We get a certain amount of context but why not feel the confusion of communication to heighten the reality of the situation?

As for burning bodies on stage- if you can come up with a theatrical live solution to that one, good luck! Sometimes in theatre (and life) what is implied is far more powerful than what we are told or shown. We know what happened. Isn't that enough in the context of live theatre? Macbeth gets his head chopped off at the end. We don't need to see it done. Oedipus plucks out his eyes. Same thing. The power of suggestion is a wonderful thing.

But food for thought E.K. Unfortunately as a whitey, I can only see it from this learned perspective. Theatrically, it worked for me. The fact that it stayed with me for days made me feel like it offered more than I thought it did at first glance. For you, not so.

Perfectly allowable.

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E Kelly February 25, 2013 at 4:09 am

Now Jane – You know that I did not suggest to actually burn the bodies 'on-stage', I suggested it would have been better 'theatre' for Thornhill to SAY, get wood and burn them etc, and down lights, which would "take the audience to 'experience' the horror of what truly happened" etc, just that little further. I wonder Jane, that you at the end of your comment deliberately try to change, and trivialise what I very clearly said. Touch a raw nerve? I certainly hope so. E Kelly.

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