Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Theatre: The Secret River

by Andrew Bovell
from the novel by Kate Grenville
Composer Iain Grandage
The Sydney Theatre Company
Directed by Neil Armfield
Artistic Associate Stephen Page
Designer Stephen Curtis
With Nathaniel Dean, Bailey Doomadgee, Lachlan Elliott, Kamil Ellis, Roy Gordon, Iain Grandage, Ethel-Anne Gundy, Anita Hegh, Daniel Henshall, Trevor Jamieson, Rhimi Johnson Page, Judith McGrath, Callum McManis, Colin Moody, Rory Potter, Jeremy Sims, James Slee, Bruce Spence, Matthew Sunderland, Miranda Tapsell, Tom Usher, Ursula Yovich
 His Majesty’s Theatre
Until March 2

The journey of a well-loved story from page to stage is a treacherous one, with the expectations of both its audiences – readers and theatre-goers – to be met, and the vasty fields of the original to be somehow crammed within the theatre’s wooden O.
The Secret River, with its description of early colonial society and the fatal clash of people and cultures in our far-from-terra nullius has deeply affected those who have read it.
The tears I saw last night in the audience were, I’m sure, from readers whose emotional investment in the book had been realised on stage. I haven’t, and can only leave the truth of that to them.
Grenville demanded of the writer Andrew Bovell, the director Neil Armfield and his collaborator Stephen Page that they take her novel and make a play from it, rather than simply putting it on the stage. This has involved two very major changes – the excision of the early lives of William and Sal Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean and Anita Hegh) in London, and the development of its Aboriginal characters, especially by giving them voice – impressively, and uncompromisingly, in the language of the Dhurag people of the Hawkesbury River, where the play is set.
Once again, the legitimacy and effectiveness of those changes are best left to the reader.
The pardoned convict, William Thornhill, takes his young family, Sal and their children Willie (Lachlan Elliott) and Dick (Tom Usher), to a 100-acre tract of land on a bend of the Hawkesbury. She counts the days until they can return home to England; he feels his ownership of this wild place makes it their home.
Ownership and home are easy concepts in an empty landscape, but it soon becomes apparent that is not the case. This is Dhurag land, too. Much of this sad story is about that little word “too”, and about people who perfectly understand who they are and what they want being unable to comprehend who and what their fellow human beings are, and want.
The opportunities for compromise and accommodation abound: Dick befriends the young boys Garraway (Kamil Ellis) and Narabi (James Slee); a woman, Dulla Djin (Ursula Yovich, in one of her roles), saves Sal’s life with a traditional remedy; some gifts are exchanged. But the inescapable truth is that real accord is unachievable, because each group has their own understanding of the land and their place in it, and they are irreconcilable.
Nathaniel Dean
All these contradictions are bound up in Thornhill, an oppressed outsider himself, and it’s his agonies and moral downfall that dominates the story. Dean is a physically imposing actor, with an uncomfortable stiffness that fits Thornhill’s character well. Hegh is a fine Sal, and the young actors playing their children are wonderful, as are their Aboriginal counterparts.
Indeed, all the Indigenous performers, and the representation of Aboriginal life and culture on stage, were mightily impressive (Page, the celebrated director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, does an accomplished job here).
I was less taken in by the representation of the rag tag band of squatters and scoundrels that made up the river’s European population, largely because I found their cockney accents mannered and sometimes vaudevillian. Colin Moody’s Thomas Blackwood, with his secret Aboriginal family, was powerful, and Judith McGrath’s canny Mrs Herring and Bruce Spence’s loquacious Loveday brought easy humour to their roles, but Jeremy Sims’ Smasher Sullivan and Daniel Henshall’s Dan Oldfield were so cartoonish that they dissolved the menace they no doubt had in the novel.
The great joy of the production, though, was its magnificent staging. Stephen Curtis’s set, a silvery gum tree trunk, was so massive it could also have been a cliff face, and the raked, open stage was a perfect platform for the action.
The scene when the young boys, after a water fight, slide helter-skelter down the slope towards the audience was blissful, innocent and thrilling. It is one of a series of set pieces – the rousing shanty Hey Ho Little Fish that closed its first half, and the hideous mutation of an Aboriginal dance by the advancing settlers in its second were others – that energized the performance.
The remarkable Iain Grandage banged, bowed and plucked inventively at cello and piano, often assisted by Trevor Jamieson (who also finely played the warrior Ngalamalum), and his compostions were the emotional underpinning to the story.
Ursula Yovich has the gift of a beautiful voice, and her Dhirrumbin, the Dhurag woman who lives to tell this dark story, is the play’s chorus. Indeed, when the dramatisation of the story runs into trouble in the lead-up to its awful climax, it’s her lovely, poetic narration that gets it through relatively unscathed.
The production’s greatest asset is its symbolism. The streaks of white paint on the Europeans’ faces say much about their tribalism, and the play’s final scene, with Thornhill scratching a count on the tree’s trunk in vertical and horizontal lines, could be the marking the passage of time between then and now, the numbering of the dead, or the fence that we have put up around our boundless plains to share, and the people we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, share them with.

An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian 27.2.13 link here 

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