Friday, February 15, 2013

The Secret River adapted by Andrew Bovell from the novel by Kate Grenville

 The Secret River adapted by Andrew Bovell from the novel by Kate Grenville.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Neil Armfield at Canberra Playhouse, February 14-17, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 14

It’s difficult to write about a play when the depth of sadness in it leaves me in silence.

This – me: my place.  These are the final words of the tragedy that was, and still is, the dispossession and mass murder of Aboriginal people throughout Australia.  The sadness of The Secret River is that the invaders were themselves the dispossessed of London, saved from the gallows only by being transported for life.  Their only hope of survival was a ticket-of-leave and a plot of land – Aboriginal land.

My feelings turn even darker when I think that only yesterday – 200 years from the arrival the fictional William Thornhill and the real Solomon Wiseman on the Hawkesbury River – has our Parliament passed an Act of Recognition saying that in law the Aboriginal people were the First People of this land.  I noticed when the camera scanned the House of Representatives while the Prime Minister spoke, and the Leader of the Opposition spoke, giving bi-partisan support, the Opposition benches were almost empty.  How sad that those Members could not turn up and show real respect on such an occasion.

The tragedy, I’m afraid, is not over yet.

I was hoping from the pen of Andrew Bovell and the directing of Neil Armfield that Kate Grenville’s novel would be more focussed on stage; while perhaps its more epic nature as a novel tended towards diffusion.  Though at interval I felt unsettled because I could not feel sure of how things were progressing dramatically, the second half put everything together.

What Bovell has done is to concentrate on the essence of the novel.  The stage play doesn’t allow us to escape from the immediacy of the situation; while when reading we can stop and distance ourselves a little from our feelings.

The casting is excellent throughout, but I have to say that Ursula Yovich was quite extraordinary in her role of narrator, and her singing at the very end drove the tragic feeling into our very souls.  The whole audience remained silent in the stillness which is the mark of great theatre, and then responded especially, I thought, to the hope for the future that the curtain call represented, as the cast – themselves in reality from both sides of the divide in the play – were united in the success of the performance.

Set model for The Secret River

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