Review: The Secret River (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Feb 1 – 20, 2016
Playwright: Kate Grenville (based on the novel by Andrew Bovell)
Director: Neil Armfield
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, Matthew Sunderland
Images by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
It is one thing to know about the usurpation of Australian land by the British two centuries ago, but quite another to see it happen before one’s own eyes. Brutal and tragic events register in our minds only as deeply as human sensitivity can allow. Our natural tendency to evade pain also means an involuntary ability to shelter our frail sentiments from the true depth of atrocities that we become aware of. We can think of this inadequacy in our comprehension as an explanation for the deficiency of empathy relating to the plight of Aboriginal Australia, and it is also the ease at which our minds can resort to delusion that their suffering can so often be hidden from us in plain sight.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is a story all Australians know. It is about early British settlement and the swift displacement of Aboriginal communities as a result of our convict history. What is valuable in Grenville’s vision, is the depth and detail of personal experiences from those old chronicles that we find difficult to face. Her play is a confrontation that insists we witness in vividness, the misjustice, betrayal and horrific bloodshed that had befallen our Aboriginal peoples, on which many of our lives today are built upon. Through her marvellous storytelling and palpable characters, concepts are turned into reality and pain is shared.

The show is heavy and heartbreaking, but also remarkably compelling. At no point is the audience in doubt about the end that is to come, but we are nonetheless captivated by the story that unfolds. Director Neil Armfield sets a reverent tone and at a deliberate pace, embarks upon a presentation that takes its responsibilities in education and activism seriously. The Secret River is exemplary as an exercise of using theatre for social progress, through the art of gentle persuasion so that its message can be accepted by many. Armfield strikes a fine balance of portraying the barbarism inflicted upon the nation’s First Peoples while relaying a dramatic narrative with great warmth and credibility, so that even the most misanthropic of us will remain engaged.

Nathaniel Dean and Georgia Adamson play the Thornhills, who begin their frontier lives on the Hawkesbury River in 1813 as farmers claiming land without authorisation by its rightful owners. The actors are vibrant, charismatic and precise in their approach, with a fierce honesty that keeps us simultaneously endeared and repelled. It is tricky business creating villainous protagonists, but the duo’s very fine work shines light on their flawed humanity with a complexity that disallows us from writing them off too conveniently. A cast of Indigenous performers brilliantly depicts the local community that falls victim to the Thornhills’ rapacious enterprise. They do not speak English, but all that they feel and desire is conveyed with clarity and enthralling charm. Ningali Lawford-Wolf provides with great beauty, an important matriarchal omnipresence that represents the origins of our land, and a compassion that informs the way we respond to the events that unfold before her, and our, eyes. The role of Ngalamalum is played by Trevor Jamieson, whose humour and capacity for powerful emotion leaves an indelible impression. His work in the epilogue especially, is quite a thing to behold, and certainly one of the most moving moments to be seen on any stage.

There is a simplicity to the production, crucial and closely linked to its essential gravity, with design elements thoroughly refined in order to maintain a sense of directness in its depictions. The show seems understated, but there is no denying the sophistication and thoughtfulness involved in creating its very specific aesthetic of earthiness and urgency. Musical Director Isaac Hayward is positioned downstage left providing accompaniment for the entire duration, orchestrating the way we feel in each scene and meticulously controlling atmosphere along with the very involved lighting design of Mark Howett. Stephen Curtis’ elegant set is a basic and unchanging one, so Howett’s lights are called upon to establish the play’s many transitions of time and space, which he manages with unassailable flair.

At its most extreme and idealistic, political theatre wishes to create uprisings and revolutions. It is arguable if any work had ever achieved that purpose, but what we can hope for, is for individuals to find inspiration, and for our culture to move towards something better, as a result of a collective awakening brought on by a show like The Secret River. When we sit in an auditorium and feel the same passions, we must realise the strength of our will and what it is capable of. We may not know what the next step should be, but the common trajectory of our feelings is undeniable, and we must hold on to the belief that justice, truth and democracy will eventually prevail.