Monday, February 18, 2013


By Kate Grenville
An adaption for the stage by Andrew Bovell
Directed by Neil Armfield

Sydney Theatre Company
The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre 14th to 17th February 2013

Anita Hegh,Miranda Tapsell,Ethel-Ann Gundy, Ursula Yovich
Photo: Heidrun Lohr
Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact  that this production was presented in Canberra during the very week that a bill to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first inhabitants of Australia received bi-partisan support in the Australian Parliament. Perhaps a great many Canberrans have read  Kate Grenville’s novel, and were eager to  see how it translated into the stage version. Perhaps Canberra Theatre subscribers are very canny with their choices and recognised that a Sydney Theatre Company production directed by Neil Armfield was bound to be interesting.

Whatever the reason, this short season by the Sydney Theatre Company of Andrew Bovell’s moving adaptation of the Kate Grenville novel “The Secret River” sold out it’s Canberra Theatre season well before it opened, so that many who were a bit slow off the mark securing tickets missed the opportunity to see a production that will be remembered as one of the major theatrical events of the Canberra Centenary Year.

“The Secret River” is epic theatre, masterful and memorable, offering real theatrical magic, in the hands of a director who knows how to make a cast of 19 actors seem like hundreds, to tell a sweeping, heart-breaking story about families, both European and indigenous, trying to live fulfilling and worthwhile lives.

You don’t need to have read Kate Grenville’s novel  to enjoy this stage play, although your experience may be deepened if you have…..but perhaps not. Either way, its gripping theatre, which leaves you informed, satisfied and unsettled.

Nathaniel Dean as the convict-farmer-breadwinner and Anita Hegh as his loyal, loving and ultimately defeated wife, both provide warm compelling portraits of parents trying to build a life for their family in a forbidding, unhelpful environment. They are surrounded by a disparate group of acquaintances, all of whom are already beaten by their circumstances.   Jeremy Sims, unrecognisable as the monstrous Smasher Sullivan, with his team of snarling, baying dogs; Bruce Spence as the pathetic, educated Loveday; Daniel Henshall as the giggling misfit, Dan Oldfield; Judith McGrath as the sun-withered Mrs Herring; Colin Moody, towering and menacing as Thomas Blackwood; Mathew Sunderland in several characterisations; all create startlingly recognisable inhabitants of a cruel world which has robbed them of dignity and ambition.

No less impressive are the indigenous performers, who spoke all their lines in the Darkinjung dialect of the Hawkesbury region, which they had to learn for their roles, thus allowing the audience to participate in the frustration of the language barrier among the characters. Roy Gordon played the tribal elder Yalamundi; Trevor Jamieson and Rhimi Johnson Page were the  warriors, Ngalamalum and Wangarra; and Miranda Tapsell and Ethel-Anne Gundy their womenfolk, Gillyagan  and Buryia; each character so vivid and memorable that their ultimate fate was even more appalling.

As the narrator, Dhirrumbim, Ursula Yovich dominated the production, telling the story in  beautifully modulated tones, moving in and out of the action, all the while providing the audience with insights into the thoughts and motivations of the characters.  

The cast also includes five children whose unselfconscious interaction despite the barrier of language was a potent illustration of the futility of adult ego and ritual.

Stephen Curtis’ towering, atmospheric,  draped setting, complimented by the subtle lighting and sound design by Mark Howett and Steve Francis, provides a sense of the towering bushland which surrounds the action that moves so fluidly from scene to scene. Tess Schofield’s often ambiguous, sometimes surprising, costumes reflect the hardship of this environment. Her use of white face makeup on the European characters ingeniously suggesting how these characters may have appeared to the local indigenous Hawkesbury inhabitants. .

Embracing the impressionistic set and lighting, Neil Armfield has drawn remarkable performances from his cast, interpolating the action with stunning directorial flourishes to compliment the performances. His striking staging  of the climatic massacre, his use of actors as snarling dogs, white powder tossed by the actors  to suggest gun shots, his  use of smoke, fire and water throughout, and extraordinary use of sound and music including nursery rhymes, folksongs and  specially composed music, performed live  members of the cast , and by  the composer, Ian Grandage  playing a variety of instruments to one side of the stage, to heighten and clarify key moments, all combine in a brilliantly theatrical telling of an important Australian story which ought to be seen by audiences the length and breadth of the nation.

Indeed, having witnessed the enthusiastic audience reaction to this director’s equally brilliant staging of Tim Winton’s “Cloudstreet” when in was performed in the Kennedy Centre in Washington in 2001, this production could expect a similar response from audiences worldwide.