As the acclaimed Australian director brings his award-winning The Secret River to Edinburgh, he talks to Nick Smurthwaite about how Cate Blanchett came up with the idea, the need to represent indigenous stories on stage and supporting his friend Geoffrey Rush when the actor brought a defamation case against Sydney’s Daily Telegraph
One of Australia’s most respected directors, Neil Armfield has the calm, confident air of a top academic or a captain of industry. We are talking in the National Theatre’s press interview room, a stone’s throw from the River Thames. It is a long way from his home town of Sydney, but an appropriate place in which to discuss his award-winning production of The Secret River, which opens on August 2 at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, before coming to the South Bank.
Based on Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel of the same name, Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of The Secret River begins its epic journey on the Thames in the early 19th century, though that’s not the river of the title. That river is the Hawkesbury in New South Wales, on whose banks one of the early English settlers, a former Thames waterman transported to Australia for stealing wood, chooses to put down his roots. What never occurs to him is that the land is sacred to the indigenous people whose culture and habitation go back 50,000 years.
The novel – and play – goes right to the heart of Australia’s dark colonial past, which has become something of an obsession with the country’s liberal elite in recent years.
It was Cate Blanchett’s idea to adapt Grenville’s novel for the stage back in 2011, when she was co-director of the Sydney Theatre Company with her husband Andrew Upton. She asked Armfield if he’d be interested in directing it.
Armfield says: “I was sceptical at first, because I thought they had in mind an adaptation on the scale of Cloudstreet, which was a big family saga I directed, full of rich comedy and theatricality. I felt The Secret River might not work in the same way, as event theatre, because it is a dark, painful story that moves relentlessly towards its final, tragic confrontation.”
With what he describes as a “mounting sense of dread”, Armfield agreed to take it on, working with the writer Bovell, Stephen Page, a former artistic director of the Adelaide Festival, and Richard Green, an expert in the Aboriginal Dharug language that was in common usage at the time the novel is set.
“We did a workshop,” Armfield says, “and we held each other together. Part of the problem was that we felt we needed to change the author’s narrator figure for the stage adaptation. The book is a lot more Anglo-centric than the play.”
Despite Armfield’s misgivings, the play “took off like wildfire” wherever it was produced in Australia, winning six Helpmann Awards in 2013. This is the first time he has taken it abroad.
He says: “I always felt we should tour it overseas, although I am nervous about doing it here, because I’m not sure to what extent Australia’s colonial past has affected British culture.”
The majority of the 20-strong cast, a mix of white and Aboriginal actors, are native Australians, and there will be no surtitles for the passages in Dharug. Armfield explains: “We tried surtitles in both seasons in Sydney and everyone agreed it was the wrong thing to do, especially the indigenous actors. Richard [Green] argued that the actions reveal the language.”
The coming together of indigenous and non-indigenous Australian actors on stage is rare enough, but to see them acting out their conflicted past adds to the emotional impact of this powerful drama. It also marks a watershed in Armfield’s long and distinguished directing career, which has frequently intersected with indigenous culture.
In an interview with the Daily Review website in 2016, he said that telling indigenous stories had always been important to him “because they are crying out for theatrical representation”.
Grenville’s book kicked off a storm of debate over Australia’s past and the stage adaptation has had a similarly strong effect. He says: “There was clearly an enormous hunger for it. The lies of the past and the wrongs done to first nation people have finally been exposed, but there is something important in terms of the public ritual of that being acknowledged.”
The process has also proved to be an emotional and affecting experience for the performers involved.
“All of the actors, indigenous and non-indigenous, find themselves profoundly affected by the story they are telling,” he says. “The performers meet together in a great circle before and after every performance to confirm their distance from the characters they play, and to express their love and support for each other. In the first season of the production, in 2013, this was an understanding that was assumed but not enacted, and there were casualties of the trauma that is symbolically revealed in the play’s action. There were actors who could not endure the pain it caused them and did not return for subsequent seasons. I think we are now much better in the expressing of care for each other.”
It’s clearly hugely important to Armfield to create an atmosphere of trust among his company. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the softly spoken director being anything other than respectful and inclusive in the rehearsal room.
I worked out quite early on in my directing career that everyone is as frightened as you are, which is quite a good starting point
“Everyone in that room engages in solving the problems,” he says. “I worked out quite early on in my directing career that everyone is as frightened as you are, which is quite a good starting point. As the director, you have to try to create an atmosphere of trust and a lack of fear to enable creativity and experimentation to flow.
“The paradox is that you also have to remember it’s only a show. While you want it to be the best possible work in the world, at the end of the day it’s just a play. You mustn’t break your brains over it or expect others to.”
But earlier this year, Armfield’s duty of care was put through the wringer as a result of the high-profile defamation case that Geoffrey Rush brought against Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. A long-time friend and colleague of Armfield’s, Rush sued the newspaper over a series of articles it published alleging he had engaged in “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female member of the cast of King Lear, directed by Armfield, in 2015. Rush won the case and was awarded A$2.9 million (£1.5 million) in damages.
Armfield gave evidence at the trial, stating that he had not witnessed Rush behaving inappropriately. Today, he is forthright in his defence of both Rush and his own rehearsal processes.
“Geoffrey Rush was not on trial,” he stresses. “Murdoch’s rag the Daily Telegraph was. And it was patently found guilty of publishing ‘a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind – the very worst kind’.
“I’ve been guiding rehearsal rooms as a director for 40 years, and I have always rigorously maintained them as places of safety and trust, of playfulness and creativity, where professional respect for each person in the room, for each individual voice, is absolutely promoted in every moment of interaction. I will uphold these standards for as long as I am entrusted with the privilege of this position. I take it very seriously indeed.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Selling wallpaper in Sydney.
What was your first paid theatre job?
Handing out flyers for the Nimrod Theatre Company while I was still at university.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Lindsay Daines at Homebush State High School, who encouraged my theatrical aspirations.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Less is more. My stages have become emptier and emptier over the years, and I have now arrived at a particular kind of minimalism. The less clutter you have on stage, the richer the meaning.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
An English teacher.
What is your best advice for auditions?
Whether you’re an actor or a director, the most important thing is to listen, and try to make sense of what’s being said.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
On opening night, I love the Russian tradition of kicking everyone up the arse, and they kick the director back.
Since 2017, Armfield has been co-director of the estimable Adelaide Festival (with Rachel Healy) and spends a lot of his time travelling around the world trying to find extraordinary theatre to lure back to South Australia’s capital city. Like Edinburgh, Adelaide has a thriving fringe event running alongside the main events, giving it a cross-generational appeal.
He says: “We’re keenly aware there is a loyal group of people who’ve been seeking the pleasures of the festival for decades, but we are also working hard to make sure there is stuff to appeal to our younger visitors. The experience of theatre is unlike the experience of being in a cinema or viewing something on digital screens. It’s the most ancient form of shared storytelling. There is something fundamental to human experience about a group of people being together in a space, which it why it has survived for centuries.”
As well as three productions at the National, including the acclaimed Cloudstreet in 2001, Armfield has directed opera all over the world, including at Glyndebourne, English National Opera and the Royal Opera House. He has also directed feature films and several TV shows. He ran the Belvoir theatre company in Sydney for 17 years from 1994 to 2011.
At 64, he says he loves the freedom of being able to work for different organisations simultaneously. “The only thing I can’t do at the moment is film, because it is too time-consuming, but I’m hoping to put that right when my contract with the Adelaide Festival finishes in 2021.”
Clearly a workaholic, Armfield’s lifelong devotion to the performing arts hasn’t been without its sacrifices. “I’ve had relationships over the years, but it is hard for directors to hold on to them, in my experience, because the work is all consuming. Actors are the people I love the most, but I haven’t always been lucky in my close relationships with actors. My friend David Hare says he thinks all directors are on the spectrum.”
Born: 1955, Sydney
• Co-artistic director of Nimrod Theatre Company (1979)
• Artistic director of Belvoir Street Theatre’s Company B (1994-2010)
• Cloudstreet (1998)
• The Judas Kiss (1999)
• Exit the King (2007)
• The Secret River (2013)
• King Lear with Geoffrey Rush (2015)
• I’m Not Running (2018)
• Things I Know to Be True (2019)
• Candy (2006)
• Holding the Man (2015)
• Edens Lost (1988)
Agent: Kate Richter at HLA Management