The Secret River.
Adapted from the novel by Kate Grenville by Andrew Bovell. Directed by Neil Armfield. Artistic Associate. Stephen Page. Costume Designer. Tess Schofield. Lightng. Mark Howett. Composer Iain Grandage. Sound Designer. Steve Francis. Cast. Georgia Adamson, Joshua Brennan, Shaka Cook, Nathaniel Dean,Frances Djulibing,Jennfer Hagan, Ursula Yovich, Bruce Spence,and Matthew Sunderland. An original Sydney Theatre Company production presented by Adelaide Festival and State Theatre of South Australia. The Quarry. Anstey Hill Recreation Park. February 28 – March 19 2017.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
I had seen Sydney Theatre Company’s proscenium arch production of The Secret River, but nothing could surpass the might of Neil Armfield’s production for the Adelaide Festival in the Anstey Quarry under the clear night sky. Against the towering cragged backdrop of the quarry cliff and on a vast groundcloth, painted with earthen colours Kate Grenville’s story of freed convict William Thornhill’s encounter with the aboriginal tribe of the Hawkesbury River comes alive with overwhelming vigour, emotional power and heart pounding impact.
Mark Howett’s lighting casts its spell across the cliff face, a spectacular overture to each changing mood as the tragedy of Andrew Bovell’s adaptation plays out its irrevocable catastrophe. The first act establishes the meeting between William Thornhill, his wife Sal and two children with the aboriginal occupants of the land. Now free to own land, Thornhill marks out his patch, oblivious to the invasion of indigenous possession and the consequence of his actions. Bovell’s masterful adaptation introduces the conflicts and the contrasts of the drama with the deftness of a writer’s keen sense of theatricality. The conflicts are clearly drawn. William is defiant in his assumed right of ownership. Sal longs to return to England. The whites, such as the mean-spirited Smasher Sullivan and Saggity Birtles regard the aborigines with contempt, born of fear and prejudice. The aborigines, under the authority of elder, Whisker Harry, resent the presence of the whites, and only Thomas Blackwood, living with an aboriginal woman who has borne him a child, understands the ways of the natives and the code of behavior between them. The stage is set for a catastrophic confrontation in the second act of the production.
Bovell’s version is told through the eyes of Blackwood’s aboriginal partner, played by Ursula Yovich. Her powerful clear voice echoes through the air, paintinf the action with words, setting the scene and pronouncing the foreboding. Director Armfield, with associate Stephen Page, bring authenticity to every moment, every stunning image and every dramatic action. On the vast groundcloth, the action flows like a river from moment to moment, from black and white children playing innocent games to Sal and the aboriginal women trading sugar and yams to the white settlers, confronting the members of the Dhurang Tribe.
The Secret River is a tale of tragic ignorance, a tale resonating as powerfully as the rugged relief of the landscape at the Anstey Quarry, timeless and echoing its conflict through the ages. It offers a warning to future generations and a lesson to be learnt .
In the second act, provocation wreaks its terrible consequence. All elements of theatre combine to hurl the spear of mistrust and fire the bullet of reprisal through the thin fragment of misunderstanding. The audience sits in a state of shock, catapulted into an horrific recognition of injustice and violent inhumanity. At the front of the stage, Jack, bloodied and disfigured by the violent perpetration of white brutality lets out the haunting, pained cry to the darkened sky. Thornhill, in an act of ultimate defiance, drives in the fence that will forever create the chasm between culture and race. There is silence followed by the spontaneous gratitude of anaudience in standing ovation.
Armfield’s brilliant production, minimalist in its staging, imaginative in its depiction, panoramic in its natural visual splendor and profoundly eloquent in its storytelling is more than a superb realization of the power of Kate Grenville’s novel, the dramatic impact of Bovell’s adaptation and the magnificent union of every aspect of production. It is an Australian story, played out in the unique environment of the Australian landscape at the Adelaide Festival, taking its proud place amongst some of the greatest theatrical performances in the world. It is a triumph of Australian art.
But still I hear the agonizing wail in my mind as I make my way down the stony path from the quarry and past the sharp outlines of the Australian bush, and I wonder when the wailing may finally end.