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The Secret River


Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Festival and Allens present THE SECRET RIVER by Kate Grenville. An adaptation for the stage by Andrew Bovell at the Sydney Theatre.

It is interesting that the lead credits for this production gives the novelist of THE SECRET RIVER (2005), Kate Grenville, that honour – the lead, precedence, and that the work by Andrew Bovell as the adaptor, for this the stage-version of THE SECRET RIVER, is placed secondarily. This is not the usual practice and I read this as verification of the almost universal admiration/affection that this novel and its related works – there is also a prequel: THE LIEUTENANT (2008) and a sequel: SARAH THORNHILL (2012), now known as THE COLONIAL TRILOGY (!), and a non-fiction work SEARCHING FOR THE SECRET RIVER (2005) – have had with the readers of this city (country) and the respect for the originator of this story, that the Sydney Theatre Company wishes to acknowledge. For although this adaptation deals with only some of the novel ( obstensibly beginning at A HUNDRED ACRES.) Ms Grenville, who had no input into the adaptation process, has said that she feels that her voice has been heard and is very pleased with the Bovell/Neil Armfield distillation and focus, on the stage at the Sydney Theatre.
Stephen Curtis, the Set Designer, says he took his cue for his theatre creation from Kate Grenville’s character, Thornhill, “who on his first night on the Hawkesbury (River) compares it to his experience of a church … so big it made his eyes water. He was dizzy, lost in panic … it was a void into which his very being expanded without finding a boundary, all in the merciless light that blasted down… “

On entering the theatre, on a curved, slightly raked floor, covered in a patina of white dust, lighting patterns and shadows (Lighting Designer, Mark Howett) lead our eyes to the bottom, very lower, part of a great trunk of a tree, (employing the full width of the Sydney Theatre’s stage), with folding creases of towering magnificence, pulling our eyes up and up, past the proscenium arch, into the unseeable scale of, necessarily imagined height, up into the heavens of the universe studied by the astronomer, Lieutenant Daniel Rooke (the hero of THE LIEUTENANT, another of Ms Grenville’s creations set in early Sydney settlement, the first of three generations of settlers she has written about).

It’s painted bark patterns reach up, rather, not like a church, I thought, but, a cathedral structure that is, indeed, dizzying in its projected invitation to imagine. It has the awesome power of nature in all its untrammelled majesty and the metaphor of the huge sacredness of this ‘cathedral’ space to the original people of this land. It, uncomfortably, for me, signaled the discomfort/outrage of the coming desecration of another civilization’s  sacred place. I recollected, as I sat in my seat, my own awe in the depths of Notre Dame in Paris, or in St. Nicholas’ church in Ghent, recently. I was intimated to imagine my own spiritual/cultural outrage if they were desecrated by another ignorant or senseless set of ‘humans’-strangers (not improbable in our present age, I fear).

In the two downstage crooks of corners on the stage, one is packed with the ad hoc properties of the camp of this usurping Thornhill family of the play, the other, with the musical instruments, dominated by an uncased piano forte – strings naked for plucking –  of the accompanying contemporary musician (Iain Grandage) to use for this story (at times over emphatic and too European for me, too much of a cacophonous piano-bang crashing. John Antill and his Symphonic work, CORROBOREE, (1946) has better connections for me, the timpani more redolent to the Indigenous sound). Mr Curtis has created a great theatrical catalyst for the audience’s imaginings (his Sydney Festival design contribution to the major Indigenous Cultural presence in 2012 for I AM EORA at Carriageworks was the best part of that venture). The lighting paraphernalia are nakedly, starkly visible as part of the stylistic technique of including us as storytellers in this production. It distances the pretended realities and simultaneously acknowledges our contemporary presence. We can see the mechanics of the effects!
Mr Grandage, our live musician (and composer) for this story, and Ursula Yovitch (Dhirrumblin), who will become the narrator of the events of this play – a very daring innovation of the adaptors of the novel for the stage, to have an Aboriginal, omnipresent voice trail us through these events – whilst the auditorium lights are still on, enter the stage space, and begin to call the soundscape of birds songs to give further dimension to the visual impact of this new world: “ca chink pee pee pee wheep! Wheep!” gradually giving way to a pre-recorded sound design (Steve Francis) (- all the actors are mic’ed to compensate for this theatre’s infamous acoustical problems and is managed well in the performance).
It signals further, as did the design, the playing style elected by the Director, Neil Armfield, as well: the actors, storytellers creating all the effects, ‘playing’ at many tasks: actors, actors as characters and shape-shifters (as other animal species, for instance), music makers, singers, dancers, prop movers and even audience like us – they, sometimes sitting on benches and chairs in the wings, as witnesses to what they have created. It is a method that subtly invites us to act, imagine and play in the storytelling too, not just as an outside observer but as one of the creators. Our imaginations are called upon and we must play, as well. We are invited to co-create, co-operate, share the experience. It is the relaxed Meyerholdian idea of the shared experience of ‘tribal storytelling’ – the knowing presence and interaction of the creator and the listener/audience – it is as old, of course, as the meetings around the camp fires in the caves of all our ancestors, around the fire for warmth and protection, and the teaching of how to survive in the world through stories of comfort and confrontation.
Digression: It was the shared knowledge that the Aboriginal people gave, in the play, to the ‘new peoples’ of how to make FIRE with the rubbing of sticks, [one of the separating discoveries, ideas, in the evolution of man as a species] that resonated with me, hugely, as to the value of various cultures and the passing of surviving skills, from one tribe to another. And, even further, the irony, here, that it is the ‘baby’ of the family (out of the mouth of babies) that this gift is passed on to and  from Dick, the son, to William, the father, after the lesson from Ngalamalium, one of the men of the Dharug.
The characters created for the play from the novel, and there are family structure differences, are brought to life with passionate zeal and beautifully nuanced choices of technique by the performers. More commitment one could not ask for. Anita Hegh reveals, once again, the primacy of her gifts and interpretative skills as Sarah (Sal), the mother of the family, conflicted with the present circumstances of the family’s opportunities in the Hawkesbury settlement, its hardships, and the nostalgic yearning of a place, back and over there, that may have become romanticised in her selective remembering. Ms Hegh’s subtle physical characteristics, employed to round out the character written on the page, are immaculate in choice and usage – a case where the ‘picture’ of her physical actions are worth a thousand words.
Colin Moody creates Thomas Blackwood, the most contented and, perhaps, wise of the settlers, a natural humanist, with revealing nakedness of action and enlightened instinctive intelligence without a cowering deflection from the character’s embrace of the sense of what is right and how best to achieve that for himself and his new family – his toughened goodness, a source of possible hope. On the other hand, we have a truly bloody-minded, deeply convicted self-believer in how to survive in this environment from the fearless Jeremy Simms as Smasher Sullivan – a man of his times, who has been taught by masters on how to win: smash or be smashed, kill if need to or be killed. Uncompromising cruelty wielded with the full power of an evil. Mr Simms’ unflinching embrace of this character, represents those (sad to say) rare actors who have no personal vanity in their embodied identification with their character tasks. Sullivan is a titanic force to absorb into one’s psyche and Mr Simms inhabits this man and shows him, almost without any saving, redemptive feature – a true actor of courage, awesomely shocking in his powerful envelopment of  darkness.  He sets a benchmark of ugly possession, as near to Josh McConville’s creation in last year’s production of THE BOYS as one could wish to experience.
Judith McGrath, almost unrecognisable as Mrs Herring, creates a theatrical portrait of the female survivor in the rough of this new world with wit and cheeky warmth, if not a fully immersed truth – it sometimes has a sense of the actor enjoying it too much. It is, however, a remarkable creation, especially when I remember her last real impression on me was as that tough nurse, in television’s long running ALL SAINTS, (a core truth, then, with a different carapace?). Dan Henshall, Bruce Spence, Matthew Sunderland all give dedicated performances in a variety of tasks, (kangaroos, mad dogs and mad men – mad dogs and Englishmen out in the midday/night sun!), as does Callum McManis as Willie Thornhill, the unhappy, suspicious youngster teenager in the bush.
From the fly leaf of the published novel:

In 1806 William Thornhill, a man of quick temper and deep feelings, is transported from the slums of London to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. With his wife Sal and their children he arrives in a harsh land he cannot understand. But the colony can turn a convict into a free man. Eight years later Thornhill sails up the Hawkesbury to claim a hundred acres for himself. Aboriginal people already live on that river. And other recent arrivals – Thomas Blackwood, Smasher Sullivan and Mrs Herring – are finding their own ways to respond to them. Thornhill, a man neither better nor worse than most, soon has to make the most difficult choice of his life.

Nathaniel Dean captures this raw and instinctively honest family man, William Thornhill. A man of no education but that that the rough ways of the world has given, who gains an unbelievable opportunity “to take up land”, land of a hundred acres to be his own, (a Promised Land)  only to discover that there are ‘others’ who feel he has instead, “took land”. To keep it, to enhance his family’s wealth and status, to escape the tyranny of the old civil burdens of Empire habits and decrees, prejudices, he must join, it seems, inevitably, with others, through the force of these historical contexts, to commit a deed of murder, massacre, barbarism. Torn between his ambition and duty and his honour, Thornhill, embarks on a path of destruction, with others, which will deliver his ancestors into a state of an open wounding, of injury. Mr Dean, a powerful physical figure with the mien of a hero, blond (freckled) and blue eyed – in this instance, a classic cultural  (Western) archetype – embodies not only this physical ideal of hero, from whom we expect deliverance to a utopian existence, but whom, today, we realise maybe, anti-hero – and has thrown his ‘tribe” into disturbing conscious ambiguities. In close up Mr Dean’s face is awash with expressions of conflicted demands, his body twisting tortuously with the strains of making decisions of survival. The psychological complexity of Thornhill and his primitive and innate sense of right and wrong are brilliantly conveyed. It is a performance trembling, blinking with lived realities of anguish and hopes – ” a man of quick temper and deep feelings. … a man neither better nor worse than most. …” It is an aching lived transporting and possession on the part of Mr Dean to his craftsmanship to ownership of William Thornhill. It is riveting in its concentrated spareness of gesture and seems  inwardly costly to create and sustain. Mr Dean’s exhaustion is genuine at the curtain call – it is eloquent to his commitment of, to, purpose.
This is a tragedy of an everyman. Mr Dean’s performance illuminates, and causes us to embrace one of the well spring desires of Ms Grenville, and the adaptors in this production, the resonating need of the present generations of the colonial European ‘white’ community for reconciliation with our Aboriginal (‘black’) community. Ms Grenville in researching her family history, that of her ancestor Solomon Wiseman (of Wiseman’s Ferry fame), found herself confronted with the eyeline and the silent interrogation by an Aboriginal woman on the Harbour Bridge Walk for Reconciliation in the early 2000’s that planted the seed in her for a broader investigation and conversation about her family’s historical impact on the original land and its occupiers. Ms Grenville was challenged and , fortunately, she acted. So, Ms Grenville’s novel is part of a growing discussion to reach for an understanding of who we are: “The work comes of that place where history meets the contemporary need to know the people and nation we are.” Tom Keneally’s THE COMMONWEALTH OF THIEVES: The Sydney Experiment (also published in 2005) and the more recent 1835: The Founding of Melbourne & The Conquest of Australia (2011) by James Boyce and the Vogel Prize winner for fiction in 2011, THE ROVING PARTY by Rohan Wilson are further examples of this movement. ) The Sydney Theatre Company felt that this was a story of national significance and that it should/could be told in the theatre. Both literature endeavours, the novel and now this play script, have begun a speaking of some unspeakable historical facts, facts that once faced and owned may bring an ease of understanding and unification, with the acceptance of a responsibility for them and a kind of apology to the original landowners with the expression of a possible plea to help bring some kind of resolution – this play a kind of Talking Cure, then.
And one of the possible resolutions is empathetically placed in this production in the representations of the playing of the innocents. The open interconnection and joy of the children of both sides of this dilemma, the black and white, as they slip and slide across the wetted floor of the stage. It can be powerfully read in the real sense of fun and showing-off both, by the Aboriginal children, Bailey Doomadgee as Garraway, James Slee as Narabi, and the remarkable Rory Potter as Dick Thornhill, the curious, his heart is carried on all our sleeves. (Tom Usher is he alternate actor in this role). In the games we watch on the stage one questions whether the joy is manufactured as part of the ‘acted world’, or, is it an authentic present-moment of delight expressed by these young boys? The present authenticity is, however, palpable. There is lived there, a unity of shared delights and a way of co-existing as ‘brothers’. A place to begin a joint understanding and reconciliation, perhaps. Images that us adults should not forget.
Before moving on I wish to niggle a little: one can sense the honour of responsibility that these actors feel (to be clear, the ‘white’ actors), emanating, as it does, from them, firstly, as actors deft with craft embedded in character, and, secondarily, I believe, especially, as contemporary citizens of the nation telling a story that they know is important and past its due in telling. There is a sense of muscular, missionary urgency and this sometimes slightly, lightly, for me, unbalanced the historical, contextual truths of motivation of the characters’ world. The playing sometimes had a sense of didactic pointing to the hind-sighted misapprehensions and less enlightened codes of conduct/behaviour of the time of the play – mostly unconscious, I’m sure, from the actors – that had, in my viewing, a sense of a judgemental view/explanation, seeking understanding that is more 2013 than 1813. Some of the actors seemed to be asking for pardon for their characters actions. In contrast, say ,to the actor’s characters in Quentin Tarantino’s film DJANGO UNCHAINED, where the behaviour revealed was the manner of the times, and there was no hint of apology in the  savage performance of their roles.
To adapt this novel for the stage, Mr Bovell and Mr Armfield have taken quite some poetic licence. The Indigenous people of this land, the Dharug, have been created as individuals (with names) and given dialogue to speak, unlike the book. Ms Grenville explained: “I was only able to gesture towards it in the novel.” “She did not want to trespass onto a culture she knew little about and therefore couldn’t empathise with.”  Stephen Page, Artistic Director of Bangarra Dance Theatre as Artistic Associate to this production (his own work ID, part of BELONG for Bangarra Dance Theatre in August, 2011 and BLOODLAND in November, 2011 for the Sydney Theatre Company are in themselves important productions towards a new Indigenous conversation with the white community) along with Richard Green, a Language Consultant for the Indigenous cast have helped THE SECRET RIVER company negotiate this imposition on the original. I know of some, and can imagine other cultural mores around the representation of the Indigenous peoples (ancestors) and the re-creation and learning of the Dharug language that would have made the whole creative process a delicate and a mighty task for all those directly involved. The company of  Indigenous actors, embracing a wide range of age (and from different Indigenous cultures and, perhaps, language) are movingly convincing as the Dharug people in the play, in their spoken interactions, and reveal a physical grace of natural communication skills  of modesty and clarity in the actioning of their acting demands (their mimetic success is wonderful – sub-titling, sur-titling made redundant): Roy Gordon, (Yalamundi – the elder of the tribe), Ethel-Anne Gundy (Buryia – the female leader of the tribe),Trevor Jamieson (Ngalamalium) and Rhimi Johnson Page (Wangarra/ Branyimala) – tribal warriors, Miranda Tapsell (Gillyagan/Muruli) as young female woman/mother, and the children,at my performance: Bailey Doomadgee (Garraway/ Dulla Djin’s child) and James Slee (Narabi) (and otherwise Kamil Ellis). All create a sense of tribe and extended family and an ease with the land and the way to manage it – to reveal in the actions of the script, as in the novel, the practical knowledge that allowed these nomads to triumph over this trying country.
As intimated earlier the boldest adjustment that the theatre team have created, diverging from the novel, is that of handing the narrative voice of this story to that of an Indigenous one. Ursula Yovitch as Dhurrumblin, the narrator, and in the action of the story, also, Dulla Djin, gives a dignity and unifying shape to the work. A mammoth task handled with expert aplomb. Yet, it is here that I felt the most unease. This text, this story/narrative is still that , majorly, of a white ‘voice’ and this new indigenous ‘overview effect’ lacked authenticity, had, I felt, a not wholly embodied commitment to the deeper observations and responsibilities of the story. At the performance I attended, the tonal qualities of the spoken word from Ms Yovitch became slightly melodic in an ’empty’ kind of way and became blurred into generalised ‘sung’ sounds instead of information, attitudinised or not, as may have been required by the writer to create maximum effect. For, when Ms Yovitch pitched into her sung grief in the final moments of the production, the vocal efforts focused, and communicated with pin point accuracies the deep understanding and commitment of this tragedy of THE SECRET RIVER and its living consequences. Ms Yovitch was transmuted into a painful truth that was an infection of profound passionate grief for all of us present in the theatre. The contrast of communication in the narration tasks and the singing, was startling in a real heart breaking manner. There, then, I became truly engaged with the narrator,  where before I had been mysteriously uneasy, puzzled and cool.The theatre audience, all of us, were stunned into a long silence by this perfect gesture from Ms Yovitch.
In a letter to Neil Armfield from Ms Yovitch, published with permission in the program, Ms Yovitch expresses her own griefs of the terrible history of our cultural interactions and the consequences to her people and family: “…The content of THE SECRET RIVER is tough and I know it will be emotionally draining. I’m not a trained actor by any means and the only way I know how to work is to feel my way through and most times it’s to my detriment. …The trauma is so deep that we believe our own worthlessness. … Generational Trauma.” The grueling task of re-creation eight performances a week is an Olympian demand and to tell this story from a fragile position was a brave and dedicated aspiration.
The care that THE SECRET RIVER company realised in bringing this important novel to the stage is no more evident than in the thoughtful and intricate choices and solutions of the costumes by Tess Schofield. The achievement in the designs and execution of the design is in the deft combination of period and contemporary resolution. Some of the Aboriginal cast wear earthy coloured, patterned ‘board shorts’ – that it is a late observation, by me, in the performance, is a credit to their subtlety. The sensibilities to all involved, actors and audience by the design team is registered in the creation of nude sculptures/costumes for the two actors who are revealed naked in the story. The ‘white’ settlers are also ingenious in the acceptable improvisations, representations.. ” Improvised period and tribal looks are assembled loosely from contemporary elements, with the same relaxed energy that rehearsal clothes are cobbled together, and our whole human river is roughly painted with the wear and tear of life, salt, tar, rich river mud, ochre and mud.”-Tess Schofield. The faces are screed with paint and no more startlingly then in the white for the white settlers.

Cumulatively, as usual, the genius of the storytelling skills of the Director Neil Armfield brings this story of THE SECRET RIVER to the theatre,  seemingly effortlessly, and to encourage us to an open conversation of our past and the consequences of it. That the audiences have been so grateful and moved is a marking of the aptness and appropriate timing of its arrival, no matter the deep conservatism of the writing choices by Mr Bovell and Mr Armfield in their collaboration – using the slow scene build of the ‘ordinariness’ of the people and their daily lives over the two long acts of the play (sometimes too sluggishly, especially in the first act) to draw us inexorably to a pinnacle of breath-holding tragedy. The dialogue of the characters are mirrored approximations of that of the novel. There are no great thinkers or philosophers here, little learnt education, no great ideas amongst these people, their lives weightily dominated by the basic need to ensure food and shelter for one’s family – to survive – and, so, the great core of the play, its idea, is a simple one. None of the language gestures of say Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE and its protagonists, we do not have the education of those settlers settling on the frontier of the Americas. Though in the unfolding of the play, this very rudimentary simpleness is enough, and culturally cauterising.

At least it was for the audience I sat with, for it appeared ready to listen and to hear and to be moved . This novel, play and production is an example of what I touched upon in my conversation around the Griffin production of RUST AND BONE and  HOLLYWOOOD ENDINGS. Works that provoke discussion and perhaps change in the perceptions of the world around us. Writers, actors, producers as artist/activists. Mr Armfield is too gentlemanly and perhaps wise to encourage out-right revolution but invites us to a sure river flow of evolution. A gentle point to shocking facts and giving a way to be able to absorb it, in the dark and as a collective – safety in an anonymous number. He is certainly a subtle artist/activist.

I remember in 1972, forty-one years ago, the beginnings of the NATIONAL BLACK THEATRE. I remember the startling Bryan Syron and the warm determined Bob Maza moving his brothers and sisters to the possibility of using the theatre as a way to propel a message to the community. I remember the theatre artist/activists of the original Nimrod Theatre giving opportunity for action on  stage for the Indigenous voice. I remember, especially, The Old Tote Theatre Company (the ancestor of the Sydney Theatre Company) mount a huge production in the Drama theatre at the Sydney Opera House written by Michael Boddy (he, of THE LEGEND OF KING O’MALLEY and BIGGLES ) called THE CRADLE OF HERCULES (1974), directed by George Whaley. It was a chronicle play about Governor Arthur Phillip and Bennelong. I remember it had a large cast of white actors led by John Gaden as Phillip. I remember a contingent of Indigenous actors with large responsibilities of text led by Jack Charles as Bennelong with Zac Martin, Justine Saunders, and amongst others, the young David Gulpilil.
My memories of these events were stirred while sitting in the Sydney Theatre last Thursday for this performance. I remember the time, it was the second season in the new building by Utzern. I remember our Prime Minister was Gough Whitlam.  He who had been elected with the chant and song of IT’S TIME. I remember it being a time of optimistic futures. I remember it being, especially, a time of hope, of possible reconciliation. I know, yes, unfortunately, I have knowledge and remember that it all dribbled away: optimism and reconciliation. You all know, now, that it has taken almost 41 years to get another company of actors representing the whole of our nation together, black and white, to tell a story that concerns all of us vitally. I hope the enthusiastic and deeply moved audience of last Thursday does not let the impetus of this production dribble away. As well.
I, personally, hope and pray for an Aboriginal overview of the past (perhaps the telling of the Dharug point of view of this story) and, especially, the PRESENT (See my blog on WINDMILL BABY and POSTS IN THE PADDOCK) to be presented. While we have  Scott Rankin and ‘bigHART’, Stephen Page, Wayne Blair (how amazing a piece of work is the film THE SAPPHIRES – love and mush,  songs and laughter, and BIG big politics? I can hardly wait for the US release to observe the reaction to Mr Blair’s and Mr Briggs embracing of Martin Luther King to the Indigenous struggle down under!!!) Andrea James, Rachael Maza, Lisa-Mare Syron,  and others demonstrating their abilities, I expect great things.
What I fervently wish is that the passion, humour, anger, weighted intelligence of the African/American writers take flame as inspiration down here for our Indigenous writers and artists to point more ‘violently’ to the facts. (I wish I could be sure that our writers knew which writers I am referring to. My experience in the field has made me, sometimes a cynic). And, although it is the work of Quentin Tarantino, I do wish for an Australian work of the inflamming passions of the film DJANGO UNCHAINED: intelligence using satire, wit, compassion and daring to rile, to shake up, the comfortable.

THE SECRET RIVER  at the Sydney Theatre, may its influence be taken up and be built upon and for longer than the influence of THE CRADLE OF HERCULES proved to have. We thought it was the TIME, then, for change.

What do we care for now, really … honestly? Look : the closing moments of this production has an emotional and physical projection into the present, from 1813 to 2013. Mr Thornhill -Nathaniel Dean – now dressed in a Country Road checked jacket, blue shirt and biege chinos, sees an Aboriginal man, perhaps a great, great, great, great grandson of Ngalamalium – Trevor Jamieson – squatting by a make shift fire. Dean/Thornhill , looks and sees an unkempt indigenous figure, Jamieson/Nglamalium and moves on.

Now, for all my tub thumping here and elsewhere, I, now, must confess , that I, walking in Oxford Street near Taylor Square into and along Bourke Street, near the Matthew Talbot Hostel, often see Indigenous sitting, begging on the street. I move on without any act of care. I have walked through the streets of Kings Cross and the “block”, area in Redfern, seen my Aboriginal brothers and sisters and moved on without outward acknowledgement. I saw SAMSON AND DELILAH at the movies, was shocked and have not moved one fibre of me to assist change. I have seen the documentaries of distress from the outback and centre of Australia on my television screen in the comfort of my home and not registered a single action of change. Will I do anything different now after watching THE SECRET RIVER? Will the weeping, stunned audience I sat in and with  in the theatre on Thursday night,  those who stood in ovation , and the others I hear have done regularly, bring in any active effort of change?

….. ? …….?…..?

Three times Peter was asked. Three times he denied.

This was a production that ought to be a catalyst for enlightenment and healing, or, to quote Clive James from his collection of essays CULTURAL AMNESIA: the “embodiment of the sad truth that beauty begins as a consolation for what can’t be mended” – at least.

P.S. A regular plea. It is a shame that there is no biography of Kate Grenville in the program.  It would be proper, don’t you think to acknowledge the writer, the originator of this story? The writer of any story!!!! Believe it or not, not everyone has read the book. Not everyone knows who Ms Grenville is and what she has writ.