Kate Grenville’s ‘The Secret River’ opens at The National Theatre.
The Sydney Theatre Company multi-award-winning production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River has just opened at the National’s Olivier Theatre. It’s a drama that exposes the tensions between the original convict settlers in Australia and the indigenous First Nations population. Just before the play began director Neil Armfield came to the stage to announce that Ningali Lawford-Wolf who was cast as the play’s narrator Dhirrumbin, had tragically passed away after the company’s run at the Edinburgh. Lawford-Wolf had been at the heart of of the making of the show and despite the best efforts of her replacement Pauline Whyman, who was understandably reading from a script, this tragic event cast an obvious shadow over the performance.
The show opens with multi-instrumentalist musician Isaac Hayward and Pauline Whyman both whistling creating a stunning birdsong soundscape that gives life to Stephen Curtis’ deliberately arid set design of mud-coloured flooring and a stark backdrop framed only by the greenery of some eucalyptus branches. The story centres around the character of William Thornhill played in a haunting performance by Nathaniel Dean, with a slightly Aussie take on a London accent, as a man driven by the ghosts of his past to create a better life for himself and his family. Having been transported to Australia and finally pardoned for his past crime in London, William is finally a free man in Australia and able to claim a 100-acre plot on the banks of the Hawkesbury River for him and his family. The problem for the Thornhills is that the land is already occupied by a family grouping of the ancient Dharug people. As the play slowly unfolds and tensions emerge between the two families leading to an inevitable tragic conclusion, we see that all the characters are victims. William and his fellow settlers have been forced into crime in London by class and economic circumstance and the Dharug are unwitting victims of a colonial penal system that placed no value on their rights, culture and very existence. Georgia Adamson plays William’s wife Sal Thornhill with a feisty charm and it is her character that is the emotional centre of the play. But despite her and one of her sons making friends with the local women and children, she cannot break out of the colonial mindset saying to the Dharug “We’re here now and we wouldn’t mind if you buggered off somewhere else”. Amongst a strong ensemble cast of 22, there were some standout performances, particularly Jeremy Sims as an odious Smasher Sullivan, Melissa Jaffer as the weatherbeaten Mrs Herring and Dubs Yunupingu and Elma Kris as Gilyagan and Buryia, the Dharug daughter and mother who at times brought some much-needed lightness to this dark tale. Music composed by Iain Grandage is central to the show with subtle underscoring as well as full-blown songs being performed in the Dharug language as well as English. But the music couldn’t help the fact that the first half felt too long, slow-moving and predictable and without the vibrancy and physicality of a production such as Small Island that similarly addressed a clash of cultures. However, the show builds to an effective and moving climax as the tragedy plays out and shines a light on a difficult and unresolved piece of Australia’s history.
Secret River is playing in repertoire at The Olivier, National Theatre until 7 September
For more of this season’s programme at the Olivier and other Southbank Theatres do check out the London-Unattached National Theatre preview
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