Neil Armfield’s production of 'The Secret River' for the Adelaide Festival voyages into Australia’s historical heart of darkness, but offers hope for reconciliation.
With Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation, one wound in our nation’s psyche was soothed while others remained. Focus has recently shifted towards the appropriateness of celebrating Australia Day on the date of 26th of January; a day upon which the first 11 ships that comprised the First Fleet blew into Port Jackson in 1788.
'The Secret River', a Sydney Theatre Company production adapted from Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel, is a work set slightly more than a decade after colonisation. It frankly and powerfully compels audiences to confront what has been ignored through two centuries of collective wilful blindness. It is a play that is relevant not only to the debate over the date of Australia Day, but also to assist in understanding the events which forged our national identity, as Director Neil Armfield explains.
“Australia might have had a different history; there might have been another way to live on this land, another way of sharing. The Indigenous experience was initially open and welcoming of the people who were arriving but the people who were arriving had this concept of ownership and fencing and enclosure which was completely alien; armed with gun powder and fear this terrible history was enacted.”
'The Secret River'’s protagonist, William Thornhill, was a freed convict who had endured an impoverished existence before being transported to the colony of New South Wales for the crime of theft. In London, he was positioned upon the lowest rung of an entrenched and fickle class system. Tragedy was inevitable when masses of those ingrained with the notion of class, such as William, entered upon a continent where egalitarianism had reigned for 30,000 years.
“If you are brutalised by a class system, you then brutalise others.”
For the children nourished and raised upon sun burnt soil, though, there was a glimpse of another way to live, a glimmer of hope: “The loveliest thing in the production is the little Dharug kids who are being played by Kaurna kids here in Adelaide and the little European kids who just kind of play; there’s a sense of hope, of a different history being possible.”
As a live production performed in theatres, 'The Secret River' has been lauded for its capacity to impart the poignancy of Kate’s text. For the Adelaide Festival production, though, Neil believes that an already transformative piece has additionally potency, being staged in the open-air surrounds of an abandoned quarry in Anstey Hill.
“We hope that the festival setting and watching it under the stars will bring a whole new level of power to it but with that work we’re starting at a pretty high base. We sat and watched the light changing on the cliff there and it’s really such a beautiful landscape; it’s very dramatic and very raw. Even though the story is set on the Hawkesbury and it’s on a river, and there’s no river up [at Tea Tree Gully], nevertheless I think you can read that story onto the landscape with great ease.”
“Adelaide is surrounded by this amazing natural beauty and it’s really one of the great privileges and pleasures of the festival and duties maybe to open our eyes to what’s around us."
What happened upon the banks of the Hawkesbury river those centuries is no longer secret, yet this history is still not known or acknowledged by all; this festival season, the educating and the redressing of past wrongs continues.