Reading time: 2 minutes
Andrew Bovell has transformed Kate Grenville’s important story, The Secret River, into something phenomenally cinematic. Every moment feels replete with haunting symbolism. From contrasts of black and white, to subtle projections of light against meticulously cast flickering shadows, it’s clear from even the opening scene that this is a powerful struggle of opposing forces. In many instances, an idea of necessary boundaries is presented explicitly with dark staining lines, like an implicit allusion to the arbitrary borders that define where we live and what is ours.
The Secret River starts with William Thornhill’s arrival as a convict in 19th century New South Wales from the lowly slums of London. After a pardon from the motherland, he ventures towards a better life for him and his family along the Hawkesbury River. In its first fleeting moments, the tale feels much like the redemption path of a man whose life has up until now consisted predominantly of hardship.
Unfortunately for Thornhill, a family much older than his has called the Hawkesbury its home for a time much longer than he can readily comprehend. It is in the ensuing developments that The Secret River distinguishes itself from much of what is available in theatre today. It captivates you in every single breath. Thornhill’s journey is explored through a spectrum of intense to playful interactions between the settlers and the Dharug people. In the end, Thornhill is arguably self-driven to a climactic decision that plays out unsettlingly like a contributing verse to the Australian history that we don’t always tell our children.
Performances throughout are relentlessly powerful. Nathanial Dean encapsulates Thornhill masterfully. He delivers a layered character torn between the man he is born to be and the Dharug people borne before him. Ningali Lawford-Wolf’s omnipresent narration, herself a Dharug woman, is effortlessly ethereal yet poignant.
Every element of the production feels like a refined and an essential contribution to the story. Scenes play out like provocative questions on justice, validity, and shame. A single cello evokes more emotion in its subtlety than any symphony of orchestral pieces. Simplistic yet tasteful set design, marked by overhanging eucalyptus branches against the backdrop of an overwhelming tree trunk, feels expansive or intimate whenever it needs to be. And creative expressions of water, fire, and smoke, all come together like spiritual glue that binds everything together.
The Secret River is an emotionally demanding landmark production that is nothing short of essential viewing. Delving boldly into our dark Australian past, it will rightfully make you feel uncomfortable about your place on this land.
Feature image courtesy of Sydney Theatre Company