SYDNEY FESTIVAL: Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel The Secret River depicts a tragic turning point in our history, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today. After a gruelling four-year development, and countless near-death experiences, Neil Armfield’s stage production has finally opened at Sydney Theatre to rave reviews. He sat down with Garrett Bithell.
The Secret River almost didn’t make it to the Sydney Theatre stage. Even with a formidable artistic team – director Neil Armfield, writer Andrew Bovell, artistic associate Stephen Page of Bangarra, and Sydney Theatre Company co-artistic directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton – a stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s controversial novel seemed just too difficult.
But if the rapturous standing ovation after the opening performance, the rapid-fire word of mouth that followed, and the packed houses night after night are any indication, Sydney audiences are glad it worked out. And according to Armfield, we have Blanchett to thank.
“We developed this production over four years, and a number of times Cate was the one who pushed it to happen,” Armfield tells SX. “I guess Andrew, Stephen and I were all a bit anxious and scared of it. Because it’s such a hard story; such a painful story. On a number of occasions we thought the easiest way was not to do it. So if it wasn’t for Cate...”
Published in 2005, The Secret River explores the conflict between transported UK convict William Thornhill and the Dharug people on whose land by the Hawkesbury he attempts to settle. Grenville’s story confronts the brutality that ensued with this collision of cultures. The stage adaptation expands the emphasis to the experiences of both the Dharug people and the European settlers.
“I had read the book and loved it,” Armfield says. “I had always thought that it would be very difficult to do a film, because that was my first thought on reading it. There was an assumption that the language and the cultural practices of the Dharug were so erased in this area, but the more we worked on it, the more we found that they’re not.
“One of the early decisions we made was to alter the perspective of the book. While the Thornhill story is the central story, and it is the through the Thornhill family that the events unfold, we had to tell the Dharug story as equally. So that’s a big shift from the novel.”
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Secret River is what Armfield calls “this gathering sense of dread”. Grenville’s novel depicts a crucial turning point in our history: the moment when, through fear and greed and a lack of understanding, a decision was made by the European settlers to turn the owners of the land into victims. We are still living with the consequences of that choice today.
“You know where the story is heading,” Armfield says. “You also feel the pain, like in any tragedy, that the result could have been different.”
But the novel provoked a storm of debate among historians, some of whom disagreed with Grenville’s interpretation of events. In an extraordinary accusation, Melbourne historian Dr Inga Clendinnen even labelled it ‘anti-history’.
“I was surprised that that reaction came from the left, as it were,” Armfield says. “I know Cate was bowled over. There was a feeling of expecting a reaction from the [Keith] Windschuttle-Howard brand of denialists. But there was this reaction to a work of fiction that wasn’t presenting as history, but a work of fiction deeply informed by history – which seems to me a very common form of literature! And I think the story was written with great care and great respect, and it’s trying to tell the truth without necessarily being a historical, factual analysis.”
In many ways, The Secret River is part of the shocking cultural unearthing of the lie that had been at the heart of our history for 200 years, joining High Court decisions recognising indigenous land rights such as Mabo and Wik, Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008, and Paul Keating’s famous Redfern speech.
“I think in 100 years time, the reverberations might have started to calm,” Armfield muses. “But it is the great defining contradiction at the heart of this country, and all of its art and its stories have to somehow relate to, or deal with, that somehow.”
Armfield’s stellar cast of 23 includes Nathaniel Dean as Thornhill, Anita Hegh as Sal Thornhill, Trevor Jamieson, Ursula Yovich, Daniel Henshall, Colin Moody, Roy Gordon and Jeremy Sims.
“In the company of this show I’ve had to asked people to be careful of the word ‘we’,” Armfield reveals. “When you’re creating a work of theatre, it’s a family; and even though we’re telling a story that is cast along racial lines – and the story is certainly, there’s a line down the centre of the stage – nevertheless, we have to do it together. It’s crucial for the white performers, directors, writers, to identify across the spectrum of characters. There’s a danger in identifying with the white characters in it as a way of trying to deal with your own guilt – with the inheritance of guilt that Europeans have.”
Ultimately it’s Armfield’s hope that audiences realise this story is as much about the present as it is about the past. “I hope they think about how the country might have been different, and use that as a way of re-imagining the future. I also hope that audiences just don’t dwell on the sadness of these historical events. It’s by feeling the power and truth of it that a different future gets built.
“Moreover, I hope they understand that there is a rage that gets inherited, a rage that gets past down from parents to children. That causes dysfunction.”
The Secret River also marks Armfield’s return to Sydney Theatre Company for the first time in 13 years. His last production at STC was Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul in December 2000. Since his departure from Belvoir after 17 years as artistic director in 2010, he has been a wanted man. Indeed his production of The Judas Kiss is playing The West End at the moment, and he is directing Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen for Opera Australia later this year.
“I’m enjoying myself,” he says. “I can just put my focus into the thing I’m doing now, so I feel a bit lighter.”
[Images] Ursula Yovich and Nathaniel Dean (photo: Ellis Parrinder]; (from left) Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson on stage (photo: Heidrun Lohr); the cast of The Secret River (photo: Ellis Parrinder), Ursula Yovich on stage (photo: Heidrun Lohr).
The Secret River, part of Sydney Festival, is playing at Sydney Theatre (22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay) until February 9. Bookings at www.sydneytheatre.com.au.