Festival Theatre

The Secret River

King’s Theatre

Neil Cooper

Four stars

When Kate Grenville’s epic novel of Australian colonialism appeared in 2005, it hit a raw collective nerve regarding the white English settlers’ treatment of the indigenous Aborigine community. Writer Andrew Bovell and director Neil Armfield’s reimagining of Grenville’s story for Armfield’s Sydney Theatre Company production takes it somewhere else again in an at times troubling but necessary look at a still largely hidden history.

Grenville’s story focuses on William Thornhill, a nineteenth century London thief spared the gallows and transported to Australia, where he stakes a claim for land close to the Hawkesbury River with his wife Sal and their sons William and Dick, regardless of who was there first.

With an uneasy impasse formed with the Dharug people, Thornhill forms a kind of Dickensian ex-pats’ club with his boorish neighbours. Flashes of harmony come through what is effectively a clothes swap between Sal and two of the Dharug women. Young Dick, meanwhile, embraces the ways of his new playmates to the extent that, when they whoosh down the mud-slide they make in the centre of the stage, it’s as if all divisions are being wiped away with the children’s’ state of un-massacred, prejudice-free joy.

All this is watched over by Ningali Lawford-Wolf’s Dhirtumbin, Dulla Djin, who is both narrator and witness to the atrocity the play builds towards. As she says at one point, “Someone has to see it.”

Bovell and Armfield have created a beautifully stately piece of work, in which Nathaniel Dean’s Thornhill leads a twenty-strong cast as Thornhill moves from humble ex-con trying to catch a break to ambitious laird of someone else’s property. The nuance in his performance is a tragedy of class conflict and everyday ambition, with Georgia Adamson’s Sal a similar bundle of contradictions.

The play is pulsed on Stephen Curtis’ expansively empty set by Iain Grandage’s exquisite score, played live on piano and cello by Isaac Hayward, and with plaintive chorales that points up what is already an overwhelming lament for a nation’s shame.