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.