We’re shamefully late to The Secret River in the UK. Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel is a high water mark of Australian literature but has never cut through in the same way here; and Sydney Theatre Company’s sublime adaptation premiered in 2013, but has not been seen abroad.
The novel, adapted by Andrew Bovell, tells the story of William Thornhill: born in London in the late 1700s under a rigid class system, sentenced to death for theft, pardoned and transported to Australia, where he settles with his reluctant wife and two young sons.
Along a stretch of the Hawkesbury River, called Dhirrumbin in the Aboriginal Dharug language, Thornhill sees untilled land and decides to be the kind of self-made man that his poverty-stricken life in London could never allow. He claims it.
“When you take a little, you bear in mind you got to give a little,” says one character. The land is not Thornhill’s to take, and he’s a man unwilling to give.
Like the Dhirrumbin-Hawkesbury river, the play flows and thunders, and inescapably sweeps you away.
Neil Armfield and Stephen Page’s production has been made in collaboration with Aboriginal artists, and that feeds into one of the most powerful aspects of the play. While the story of Thornhill foregrounds opposition and the violence of colonialism, overlaid is a production that’s all about unity.
As the Thornhill boys pretend to shove their spades into the dirt, the First Nations cast members make the corresponding sound effect by hitting stones onto shovels. Later, a drunken sea shanty from the British colonisers morphs into a Dharug chant. These acts of collaboration are completely at odds with the oppositional nature of the story, and all the more moving for it.
Stephen Curtis’ set is a cloth suspended from floor to ceiling, sloped along one edge like a huge mountain. It gives the stage so much height, and suggests the majesty and scale of the seemingly empty New South Wales land.
There are brown streaks on the cloth: maybe seams of earth, maybe blood. It’s one of those designs that creates such a complete sense of landscape and atmosphere simply by gesturing.
From the moment a white man saunters on stage and Mark Howett’s lighting quietly shifts from orange and brown, all heat and haze, to cold, white and sickly, right up to the harrowing ending, every element of the hugely inventive production serves the storytelling.
Ningali Lawford-Wolf remains on stage throughout as the narrator, a solemn and watchful presence, who poignantly observes Nathaniel Dean’s Thornhill talk about a land “there for the taking”.
Georgia Adamson is unflappable as Sal, Thornhill’s wife, and Jeremy Sims does well not to over-egg a particularly loathsome character called Smasher Sullivan.
Meanwhile, Isaac Hayward sits to the side of the stage at a piano with its guts showing, plucking the strings, tuning and detuning it, performing Iain Grandage’s lilting, sad music with help from the Aboriginal cast.
The production, of course, has a message beyond the specific narrative of British entitlement and brutality in Aboriginal lands, damning colonialism in all its foul forms and depredations.
“There are many things about that history that we still need to come to terms with, collectively, but our shared future is ours to create,” says a hopeful programme note.
This production, with its raw storytelling and simple stage effects, cumulatively overwhelming, is a vital start.