Nathaniel Dean, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River | Sydney Theatre

The Secret River was, to begin with, the irresistibly intriguing title of Kate Grenville’s 2005 work of historical fiction, the story of a convict-made-good, a man who, after toil and trouble, rose to become a respected member of the infamous squattocracy. I suppose, if we whitefellas were able to look at it through indigenous eyes, we might come to realise we’re all members of an ongoing squattocracy, having invaded and appropriated (to state it with the euphemistic politeness we seem to prefer) the land of others.

Andrew Bovell has adapted the novel for a production directed by Neil Armfield, with a cast headed by Nathaniel Dean. Interestingly, it was Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett’s very first commission for Sydney Theatre Company, so it’s been a while in the making. And it’s been worth the wait. Bovell, Armfield, and artistic associate Stephen Page, have broadened the perspective of the book, such that we might see things through Dharug eyes, as well as the pardoned convict William Thornhill’s. The result is something much more thoughtful, sophisticated and sympathetic than mere political correctness would yield.

Despite a serial lack of moral courage on Thornhill’s part, for example, he isn’t really demonised. This, despite the fact he turns a blind eye to the brutal enslavement and repeated rape of a young Aboriginal woman (played courageously, and chillingly, by a naked Miranda Tapsell, corralled by a rope ’round her neck). Nor do his crimes reman passive. Thornhill’s blind eye, of course, is our own, still being averted.

The scale of the production is massive; unequalled, thus far, by anything locally-sourced during the Upton-Blanchett years. The only work rivalling it for sheer, breathtaking magnitude of vision is, or was, August: Osage County. Mind you, in this case, the stage hasn’t been built out with an elaborate and gargantuan doll’s house set. Centre stage is a the monolithic trunk of a gum; a visionary inclusion by set designer Stephen Curtis, since it embodies the grandeur of the country, majesty of indigenous culture and size of the threat to such. It serves also to point to the multi-millennial tenure of Aboriginal people and the sturdiness of their roots in the land. Such is their relationship (temporally, practically, philosophically and spiritually) to country, people and land are inextricable; forever intertwined, one doesn’t exist without the other.

Though Grenville’s (and, thus, Bovell’s) take is but a speculation on what might’ve taken place post-invasion, it’s an informed one. Colonisation was a systematic process of brutalisation which, first and foremost, required seeing Aboriginal people as less than people. This view, widely promulgated and practiced, enabled traded flour to be laced with strychnine, for example.

The genesis of the work is compelling, arising from a need, on Grenville’s behalf, to get inside the life, times, eyes and ears of her antecedent, Solomon Wiseman; who Sydneysiders, at least, will know of through Wiseman’s Ferry, on the Hawkesbury. In fact, Grenville originally embarked on a work of non-fiction, but along the road, decided to generalise Wiseman’s story.

The novel is known for the thoroughness of its evocation and this hasn’t been lost on Bovell, or Armfield. Of course, some sacrifices have had to be made but, on the whole, all the important boxes are ticked, dramatically and historically.

Nathaniel Dean, in what must surely be weighing on him as the make-or-break performance of his stage career to date, despite opening night nerves, acquitted himself impressively as the grimly determined, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”, William Thornhill. Despite his suspicion of the natives and their ways, Thornhill is too preoccupied to prevent his sensitive younger son Dick (10-year-old Rory Potter, who was so charismatic in Medea, not so very long ago, at Belvoir) from making friends with Narabi (James Slee) and, especially, Garraway (Bailey Doomadgee). These three are very much at the beating heart of the play, for its the kids, free of the baggage that stems from fear of the other, that can (but, regrettably, don’t) teach their elders a thing or two. Callum McManis as Willie, Dick’s older brother, has a difficult role, standing outside this small circle of warm friendship, exemplified heartrendingly at the opening of the second act, with the three amigos needing no language other than that intuited through the game in which they’re engaged. It’s a moment of idealised childhood that everyone present is anxious to embrace and celebrate, so the scene plays rather longer than one might expect.

Jeremy Sims, Daniel Henshall, Nathaniel Dean and Bruce Spence in The Secret River

Speaking of idealisation, Roy Gordon is Yalamundi, the very picture of a wise, heroic, patient and stoic tribal elder. He remains steadfastly fearless in the face of hysterical outbursts and opportunistic putdowns from the graceless settlers. Ethel-Anne Gundy has an enviable comedic sensibility and makes the most of the scene in which a deputation of Dharug women call on their new “neighbour”, Thornhill’s wife Sal (Anita Hegh, entertainingly giving a goodly dose of Eliza Doolittle). Miranda Tapsell (Gillyagan) shares in this mirth and mayhem and, again, language is no barrier to understanding. Meanwhile, Jeremy Sims (whom I didn’t recognise) outdoes himself as Smasher Sullivan, a man who is almost evil incarnate, with few, if any, redeeming characteristics. His menacing encounter with the left-alone Sal put me in mind, perversely perhaps, of Willem Dafoe’s bone-rattling character, forcing himself on Laura Dern’s, in David Lynch’s subversive road movie Wild At Heart, of all things. Bruce Spence, whose range seems to keep expanding, is one of three veritable teufelhunden; belonging to the devil himself, Sullivan. More substantially, Spence is Loveday, who sees himself as something of a man of letters (and is the only one among the settlers who can read), but is more akin to Frank, the tedious (if loveable) pedant in The Vicar Of Dibley.

The cast and crew are so large, it’s hard to do everyone justice, or even give due credit (not least because quite a number of actors play multiple characters). Suffice to say, one and all do justice to their roles, including Daniel Henshall, as Dan Oldfield, an old mate of Thornhill’s, who must now endure the ignominy of working for him. He calibrates his resentment and frustration superbly. Rhimi Johnson Page and Trevor Jamieson (who was so engaging in Namatjira, again at Belvoir) deliver upright, forthright and dignified roles as Wangarra and Ngalamalum. Jamieson is also a significant contributor to the live, onstage music, chiefly rendered and composed by Iain Grandage.

Colin Moody is Thomas Blackwood, who’s taken an Aboriginal wife (Tapsell). It’s a question of chicken and egg, but he’s able to see things through a different prism and, thus, empathise with the invaded. Of course, this doesn’t make his life easy, particularly with the likes of Smasher lurking, ever-ready to undermine, white-ant, backstab and bludgeon. Moody endows Blackwood with gravitas and presence. Matthew Sunderland is especially characterful as Saggitty, one of Sullivan’s reluctant but, nonetheless, willing coterie.

Tying all the narrative threads together (speaking of August: Osage County, not in an entirely dissimilar way) is Ursula Yovich. And yes, happily, we do get to hear her sing to boot. Both her diction and projection are wonderful.

Upton, dramaturg Matthew Whittet, Bovell and Armfield have banged heads and banged out a winner. Not just in the sense of its eligibility for annual awards and accolades. Or in its capacity to elicit a virtually unanimous standing ovation. But in its unsentimental, all-round sensitivity. No one, black or white, is portrayed as an outright saint or demon (although Sullivan and his nightmarish Jungian canines come perilously close). Thornhill’s stubborn, heels-dug-in stance is understandable given, having come from abject poverty, he sees his one chance at making good and seizes the day. He’s not an ogre. But he is capable of despicable acts, not least by omission.

There are powerful devices that point to the yawning dissonance between black and white, such as the nursery rhymes and songs (London Bridge) the newbies chorus around the camp fire, which sound strange and foreign, even to my ears, now. One can hardly imagine how alien they must’ve sounded to the Dharug whose land and culture was being pulled from under them. In too many ways, this dissonance is still chimes. But The Secret River extends a hand not unfurled since the bridge walk that inspired Grenville’s reflection on her own ignorance, which predicated her authorship of this, one of the best books in the pantheon of Australian literature.

The Secret River is as close as it gets to textual healing.

The details: The Secret River plays Sydney Theatre as part of the Sydney Festival until February 9 — tickets on the STC website. The show travels west to the Perth Festival, playing Her Majesty’s Theatre from February 25 to March 2 — tickets on the festival website.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.