The performance reviewed took place a few days before we learned of the sad death of leading actor Ningali Lawford-Wolf.
[King’s Theatre, Edinburgh until 11 August, then Olivier Theatre, London 22 August – 7 September]
Edinburgh International Festival welcomes Sydney Theatre Company for the first time to stage the well-respected Australian novel The Secret River (2005). Kate Grenville’s book is adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell and directed by Neil Armfield. First performed in Sydney in 2013, it’s a timely and emotionally-charged reminder of the brutal beginnings of British colonisation of Australian land.
It is 1813 and London-born convict William Thornhill aspires to build a new life with his family on fertile ground near the Hawkesbury River. Defeated by the class system in England, and sent to the Australian colonies for thieving, William finds new hope on receipt of a ‘ticket of leave’ from his forced labour status. He yearns to tend his own land. It’s his only chance to make a mark on the world by claiming a piece of land through sheer determination. His wife Sal just wants to go home. His sons just want to play with the other kids.
The indigenous Dharug people already occupy William’s self-claimed land. They can’t comprehend his claims of ownership and can only understand their role as its custodian and caretaker. Their kids just want to play with his kids. A battle of wills follows as the two cultures literally fail to communicate. When his hard work is lost, fear and rage turn William into an armed defender of his patch. William’s son, Dick, is a link between the two cultures. Sensing that he does not belong in his father’s world, Dick increasingly feels at home with the Dharug people.
The outstanding performances by the cast, in both English and Dharug, add a layer of authenticity to the ongoing misunderstanding between cultures. Throughout the performance, the convict families have skin marked white with lime; the Dharug families’ skin is daubed with dark mud. The markings fade quickly to reveal the human vulnerability beneath the surface. The set design, stark and flimsy at first, becomes a metaphor for the land itself. Despite its permanence on the stage, it suffers the marks and spills of human life, yet remains intact.
A poignant end to the first act shows the two divided communities each singing their own song in unison. Both are competing to be heard, yet also merge to make one haunting harmony.
Music is an integral part of the set as musical director Isaac Hayward joins the cast on stage, often accompanied by cast members, each contributing to the score. Even during the interval, the live music continues while the young cast members play games. The games then fade into the dramatic action of the second act.
With actor/narrator Ningali Lawford-Wolf, we are in safe hands as she bears silent witness to the story of both cultures. Dhirrumbin is her character name – also the Dharug name for the Hawkesbury River. She is the secret river that runs from past to present, bringing us the prophetic truth of the story.
The Secret River will urge you to think deeply about the definition of home, as not of land, or ownership, but of belonging, of love and of what binds us together. It is no surprise that the children in this story are the most sensible; their curiosity and play harmonises whilst the adults breed a culture of mistrust and difference. It’s a reminder that life is a puzzle that we can’t often solve as adults. It’s also a timely reminder that cooperation and mutual understanding are usually a better option than drawing borderlines in the ground.