The Secret River at the National Theatre
It feels right that the Sydney Theatre Company’s staging of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River has made its way over here. So much of what transpires is rooted in British notions of colonialism and class, and how that shapes the very idea of land.
William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean), newly a freeman after being exiled to New South Wales, is determined to make something of himself – an opportunity denied him in London. With Thornhill comes his wife Sal (Georgia Adamson) and sons Dick (Toby Challenor) and Willie (Rory Potter), claiming 100 acres of land that is new to them and them alone. For this is the home of the Dharug people, a fact that is of little interest to the settlers making their way to the river.
The tentative meetings that could suggest cohabitation are gradually snuffed out, as pride and ambition come to dictate Thornhill’s moral compass. It is an ugly turn that replicates the familiar machinations of capitalism, a destructive need for mapping, fencing and claiming that favours those willing to commit violence.
Though some of the performances start off at the Oliver! end of Cockney caricature, by the close there is terrifying menace to their chants of “London Bridge is falling down”. There’s also real chemistry between Dean and Adamson, and sterling work by Pauline Whyman as the narrator Dhirrumbin, stepping in at the last minute following the tragic loss of Ningali Lawford-Wolf.
There is, maybe, a major reservation regarding The Secret River. On one level Andrew Bovell’s choice to have the Dharug speak in their native language makes sense; in a way it would feel like an act of erasure for them to not. However, it does end up robbing them of a larger narrative role. Without the ability to make themselves fully understood their appearances are too often reduced to moments of cross-culture confusion, or a series of mirror images – the two sons, music, trading – used to highlight differences and similarities alike. A physical presence, undoubtedly; but frustratingly lacking otherwise.
It puts an asterisk next to the praise, but not enough to derail the production completely. Neil Armfield directs with immense style: flour gunshots, ghoulish Georgian face paint that makes the settlers whiter than white, an ingenious use of sound and space. Musically, it is a beaut as well, with an insistent, cinematic presence that fuels the sweeping nature of the piece. It’s the kind of transfer that is perfect for the Olivier, epic in scale and subject matter.
Photo: Ryan Buchanan
The Secret River is at the National Theatre from 23rd August until 7th September 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.