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The Secret River

Kate Grenville, adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell
Sydney Theatre Company
Lyttelton Theatre (National Theatre)
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Tragically, before the opening night of the National Theatre’s staging of this play, director Neil Armfield from the Sydney Theatre Company announced to the audience that Ningali Lawford-Wolf, one of the play’s stars, had passed away during the Edinburgh International Festival run two weeks before.

This performance was therefore a tribute to her and featured Pauline Whyman who bravely but impressively flew over from Melbourne to step into the role of the narrator Dhirrumbin at six days’ notice, using a script but not intrusively.

Kate Grenville’s novel of the same title made the Booker Prize shortlist in 2006 and is an epic tale of anti-colonialist storytelling. This version adapted by Andrew Bovell was first seen on stage in 2013.

The drama is set in something close to the Outback just outside Sydney in the early years of the 19th century. It primarily focuses on the lives of the Thornhill family, William and Sal, respectively played by Nathanial Dean and Georgia Adamson, and their two young sons.

William was a Londoner who made his living on the Thames, before falling foul of the law and barely escaping the hangman’s noose, instead being transported to New South Wales for the rest of his life.

Although he might be a relatively hard man, William is positively gentle when compared to his compatriots. These are hardened criminals, most graphically represented by Jeremy Sims taking the role of the truly odious Smasher Sullivan, the kind of man who would kill and steal as easily as pass the time of day.

Seeing an opportunity to turn his life around after receiving a pardon from King George III, in keeping with the practice of the day, William moved out of Sydney and staked a claim for land that had no European owner.

Life was always going to be tough for the new settlers. In addition to battling the elements, they are also warned by fellow Englishmen about threats from the “savages”.

The stories then build around the culture clash between the aboriginals, spearheaded by the imperious Major Sumner AM in the role of tribal elder Yalamundi, who believe that this country is both sacred and their own and the English who are equally certain that they have the legal right to take full ownership of the land and drive the natives away.

There are touching moments, particularly when the children act as emissaries between the two groups, building friendships like those across front lines at times of war and, against expectations, eventually taking their parents with them into new, hopeful alliances.

The Secret River is a memorable piece of theatre played out in an appropriately simple staging, greatly enhanced by Iain Grandage’s music played by the company led by irrepressible musical director Isaac Hayward.

So much of what appears on the London stage is derivative and predictable. That cannot be said for this tale, which has echoes of Our Country’s Good but remains unique and has literally travelled across the world.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher