This land is mine: STC's The Secret River

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is not an easy book to digest. I wrote about it last year, saying that it was an angry book though Grenville does her best to disguise it at times; angry at the way white Australia has treated the original inhabitants of the continent, their stubborn iron-willed settlers who made little or no attempt to learn how to live in their new home. When The Secret River was published in 2005, historians jumped at Grenville’s ‘claims’ that her book was history (Grenville, however, never actually made such comments). Now, eight years later, the Sydney Theatre Company is staging a theatrical reimagining of Grenville’s The Secret River, under the pen of Andrew Bovell and the direction of Neil Armfield.
Coming at a time when we, as a nation, can no longer ignore the past, where we can no longer pretend these events didn’t happen; when there is an “inheritance of rage” at the treatment of indigenous people by white people, and a saturation point is reached, The Secret River then – as both book and theatrical event – are but two facilitators to help us as a society to look at the issues contained within them, to look to the past to find how we must [not] progress in the future. And it takes its audience to “a pretty confronting place,” to quote Bovell.

When Grenville’s book was published in 2005, “Keith Windschuttle and the massacre denialists were in full throat, the people who said, ‘nothing happened, they all just died of measles, isn’t it sad’.” The Secret River then, (and, later, The Lieutenant, its companion) is about the idea of Australian history and the secrets it hides, the dark shadows that have been hidden under a carpet of nation-building and the point of view of the white settlers’ experience, the episodes that have regrettably been forgotten to the annals of dusty archives, “the secret rivers of blood in Australian history,” to quote W. H. Stanner.
I’ve long admired Neil Armfield’s directing style, the way he draws out a shared human experience within every piece he directs, his gentle probing of what it means to be human, the essence of humankind’s experience in any given moment. In his own words, he has always aimed to “reveal ‘the truth of the text’, the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in the drama…I like it to be complicated and rich, but to know where I am being led ...” And so it is with The Secret River, except underneath its humanness is a harshness, an unavoidable blight which besmears the actions of the good William Thornhill, the Everyman figure. In his Director’s Note in the production’s program, Armfield writes how the story “takes us back to a moment in our country’s narrative when a different outcome, a different history was… at least imaginable, where those who came might have listened and learnt from those who were already here, might have found a way of living here on this land with respect and humility. Instead, enabled by gunpowder and fed by ignorance, greed and fear, a terrible choice was made, [a] choice that has formed the present… Nine generations later, [the] lucky country is blighted by an inheritance of rag and of guilt, denial and silence.”
Bearing all this in mind then, all this tumult and turmoil and anger and fear and denial, the resulting production is, in a word, poetic. The set, designed by Stephen Curtis, is a towering grey-white cathedral of a gumtree, a skirt, a cliff-like riverbank undulating across the rear of the stage. Eucalypt branches encroach from around the proscenium arch, and the floor curves out into the audience; to one side sit a piano and a cello, the key components of Iain Grandage’s score, performed live. Set against this backdrop of the Hawkesbury, Armfield’s use of the space is ingenious, resourceful, at times all too simple, yet again consolidating his place as one of Australia’s key theatrical dreamers. A real fire, charcoal drawings on the stage, muddy footprints, white ochre, buckets of water, a lighting rig which cleverly simulates the harshness and intensity of the Australian light, all elements of the artistic evocation of the Australian bush, the like of which have not been seen on stage before. Tess Schofield’s costumes too, are a curious blend of the modern and the period, coats and singlets, boots and what could be denim jeans, braces and long dresses, and she notes in the program how she was fascinated with the “idea of ‘otherness’, the whiteness, the blackness, the contrast, the difference. How ignorance and misunderstanding sit at the very heart of fear, how chaos springs from that, and tragically how intrinsically similar we all are.”
The cast are uniformly excellent, as you would expect in a Neil Armfield production; he has a way of allowing every member of the production to do their best work, yet at the same time as being allowed to continually explore and test out new ideas, ways of telling the story. Nathaniel Dean as the Everyman William Thornhill, and Anita Hegh as his wife, Sal, are but two people caught in the middle of this collision of cultures, their two sons, Willie and Dick, witnesses and perpetuators of their actions. Mirroring the Thornhill family is the Dharug family, typified by an earthy spiritedness, a deep-set connection to the land, a connection the white settlers do not understand. And then there are the two settlers who have deviated from the cultural majority, to different ends of the spectrum: ‘Smasher’ Sullivan (Jeremy Sims), a brutish man who reminds me of Dickens’ Bill Sykes, is willing to use whip, gun or dogs on every and any blackfella who approaches his land, whereas Thomas Blackwood (Colin Moody), is an enigma of a man, a man who has an indigenous wife and children, who speaks their language, who understands the process by which they live – “ain’t nothing in this world just for the taking. A man got to pay a fair price for taking. Matter of give a little, take a little… That’s the only way.”
There are some beautiful moments throughout the production, not least the opening to Act II, with young Dick Thornhill playing with his indigenous counterparts, Garraway and Narabi; the same three boys having a water fight, soaking the stage; the Thornhill’s voyage up the Hawkesbury; the corroboree, the occasions with the Dharug family together; the passing of the days and seasons on Thornhill’s Point. All of this is underscored by Iain Grandage’s gentle, subtle, unobtrusive score, performed live by Grandage from the side of the stage; it is at times percussive and discordant, at others hauntingly elegant, almost elegiac, hymn-like, capable of evoking the playfulness and dramatic, the raucous and intimate. A high point of the score is the end of Act I, a raucous pub-song sung by the settlers, as the Dharug family circle them, chanting and singing in counterpoint. It is both beautiful at the same time as being a reminder that no matter what the settlers can do or the damage they can inflict upon the land and its indigenous tenants, they are ultimately intruders, obstacles, visitors.
The dramatic crux of the play comes late in the second act, with the massacre at Blackwood’s camp. Fuelled by indignation and rage, ‘Smasher’ Sullivan urges his fellow settlers to band together to ‘solve’ the ‘black problem’ as it is crudely called. Thornhill is caught in moral tumult – he sees the Dharug’s connection to the land, sees how they live, and has no reason to hurt them, but he knows that if his fellow settlers are to ‘solve’ their problem and get their ‘revenge’ on the blacks for spearing fellow settler Sagitty, they are going to need his boat. In the following deeply unsettling scene, the five white men take a handful of powder and walk in a line to the front of the line, singing ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ at the top of their lungs, changing key with each verse. As they fire their guns, they blow a portion of their powder from their hands in a small white cloud, a muzzle flash, and keep walking, keep singing. Five minutes later, once Thornhill has returned home to Sal and their boys, we see the result of the massacre, the effect on the Dharug people. It is not easy viewing, seeing the members of the Dharug family walk from the side of the stage, and collapse as they throw their handful of powder behind them. You could have heard a pin drop amongst the auditorium throughout much of the production’s nearly three-hour running time, and it is a testament to Armfield’s direction, Bovell’s adaptation of Grenville’s story and the entire cast and crew, that it was thus. But the uneasy shifting of seats at that scene’s conclusion let you know that the moment had worked, its power and horror was not lost on any of us.
Throughout the whole production, scenes are strung together and brief exposition is provided through an indigenous narrator-figure, Dhirrumbin, played by Ursula Yovich. Reminiscent of a device in another of Armfield’s landmark pieces of theatre, Cloudstreet, she is both a part of the action and outside of it, an omniscient narrator whose connection to the land is only all-too-apparent. It is interesting to note that ‘Dhirrumbin’ is one of the earliest recorded words for the Hawkesbury, thus making Yovich’s character a physical corporeal manifestation of the spirit of the land, the Dharug’s centuries-old connection to the land. halfway through Act I, Dhirrumbin’s words cut to the very heart of the play (and book’s) central theme: “Thornhill was waiting for them to leave. What he couldn’t know was they were waiting for him.” Yet she is also timeless, of our time, an echo of the past, reverberating through the two-hundred-odd years between Thornhill’s time and ours, a manifestation of the cultural shame and sadness of the memory of events that took place on our shores. Back in 2006, Neil Armfield also commented on this, saying that “if you read Kate Grenville’s [The] Secret River, you understand… you can never see Sydney without feeling the memory that laps at the harbour’s shores. Your sense of what connects the great mass of Australia to the past and to the world is profoundly, unforgettably enriched.” So it is with Armfield and Bovell’s adaptation.
Perhaps more so than the book itself, the play (literally) gives voice to the indigenous people, lets them talk in their own words, in their own language, and lets their voice be heard. And because of that, the acts brought against them by the white settlers are even more horrific and visceral, more unsettling and disturbing than they are in Grenville’s printed words. And because of this, this production of The Secret River is well-deserving of its description as a “landmark theatre event,” of this year, this decade, perhaps even this generation. As a novel, The Secret River heralded a new way of approaching indigenous relations and thinking, as a play it demands it; it sticks in your gut and twists, gripping you, making you think, making you squirm, making you pay attention, shutupandlisten. It demands an end to the “Great Australian silence;” it demands action.

It isn’t what you did in the past that will affect the present. It’s what you do in the present that will redeem the past and thereby change the future.
– Paulo Coelho

Theatre playlist: 4. The Landing, Elena Kats-Chernin

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