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Review: The Secret River

Adelaide Festival

The decision to stage powerful drama The Secret River in Anstey Hill Quarry was an absolute stroke of genius.

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Adapted from Kate Grenville’s novel of the same name, the play tells the tale (or rather, one of the tales) of the European invasion of Australia. The huge vista of the rock-hewn amphitheatre, with sapling gum trees growing from its crevices, is an appropriately stunning backdrop for a drama of such epic proportions.

The story is that of William and Sal Thornhill, sent to the penal colony of New South Wales because Will has been caught stealing. When he receives his pardon he starts to dream of “taking up” a bit of land by the Hawkesbury river.

Trouble is, the land isn’t there for the taking: it’s part of the Dharug people’s homelands. But Will doesn’t see it that way and the resulting conflict has devastating consequences.

The-Secret-River: Nathaniel Dean, Ningali Lawford-Wolf and Stephen Goldsmith. Photo: Shane Reid

The-Secret-River: Nathaniel Dean, Ningali Lawford-Wolf and Stephen Goldsmith. Photo: Shane Reid

Although wordy (the play’s two-hours-plus is packed with dialogue and narrative), Andrew Bovell’s script for this Sydney Theatre Company production produces some incredibly complex characters who speak some remarkably powerful lines. “Is that it then, Will? Is that all we have? You and I? Silence?” – Sal asks, in the final act.

Neil Armfield’s brilliantly inventive direction adds the theatrical fairy-dust that makes the play soar: the shadows of the Dharug dancers imprinted on the rock-face; the white settlers bound together in the newly-built hut (a square of light reminiscent of a boat’s hold or a prison cell); the lynch-mob throwing up handfuls of flour to mimic gun-smoke. And it all unfolds with a live soundtrack, composed by Iain Grandage.

Nathaniel Dean is competent as William Thornhill, but it’s the women who own the stage. The narrator, Dhirrumbin (the Dharug name for the Hawkesbury river), is beautifully underplayed by Ningali Lawford-Wolf. Although her part is perhaps overwritten (the script occasionally has her explain something the actors have clearly demonstrated), she gives a quietly commanding performance that radiates serenity and wisdom.

Georgia Adamson is equally mesmerising as Sal Thornhill, her strong physical presence and flawless delivery making her an absolute joy to watch.

Nathaniel Dean and Ningali Lawford-Wolf. Photo: Shane Reid

Nathaniel Dean and Ningali Lawford-Wolf. Photo: Shane Reid

When the lights finally go out, the Anstey Hill quarry setting, once home to the Kaurna people, takes on new significance. It’s a place that was stolen from the Kaurna and brutally hacked open to provide stone for the houses of Adelaide’s European settlers. The quarry is now part of a conservation area and nature is gradually taking over again.

Here’s hoping that creative works like The Secret River, and the debates they stimulate, can help pave the way to a similar repairing of relationships and a more amicable and just cohabitation.

The Secret River – a Sydney Theatre Company production – is showing at Anstey Hill Quarry until March 19. It is presented by the Adelaide Festival, in association with the State Theatre Company of South Australia.

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