Review: The Secret River
Everything you’ve heard is true. Kate Grenville’s much-praised novel that tackles big themes that affect this country, written with compassion and empathy for our ancestors, has got the production it deserves.
A great deal has been written about our history and I don’t think you can avoid feeling uncomfortable watching this adaptation for the stage by Andrew Bovell, directed with such care and precision by Neil Armfield. It is a story of Aboriginal dispossession but I didn’t feel lectured at all. Instead a genuine attempt has been made to put us in the shoes and let us look out through the eyes of these people who lived two centuries ago.
Like the book, William Thornhill is the centre of the story. He is a deeply tragic character. He is a good man who participates in an evil act. Growing up in ugly, humiliating poverty, he is then shamed as a convict. Though pardoned he has nothing to go back to and he is not blind to the opportunities in the new colony. He wants to feel truly free – to have a place to call his own – but he will rob others of their freedom and then pay the price, not with his life, but with loss of his peace of mind.
Set on the Hawkesbury River, two families – the Thornhills and the Dharug clan – find themselves attached to a piece of land. The following black and white relations are more than just an imagined history. What is presented is an accurate psychological portrait where two groups of people can’t communicate, the tension slowly builds and it leads to violence.
Nathanial Dean is riveting in the role of Thornhill and Ursula Yovich is equally arresting as the play’s narrator.
This might be the most important piece of theatre I see this year. I recall other tremendous STC productions I’ve seen in this space – Big and Little, Vanya, Streetcar – foreign plays that toured to foreign shores to great acclaim. The Secret River is a story of our experience and a great play that can be shared with the world. C’mon Mr Upton, make it happen.
The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Theatre. Until 9 February. Bookings: Availability extremely limited, (02) 9250 1777