It’s impossible to talk about this production of ‘The Secret River’ without mentioning the setting. Surrounded by giant gum trees, gully winds breaking the stillness of a clear night, the Anstey Hill quarry looms over the stage.
It’s a stunning backdrop that evokes both the traditional Kaurna owners of the land and the Europeans who claimed it, and brings a sense of immediacy to a tale of two cultures colliding on the Hawkesbury River. The land is a silent observer of history, and our narrator is a manifestation of the river itself.
Ningali Lawford-Wolf’s performance as Dhirrumbin is magnificent, anchoring the story and bearing witness to the unfolding tragedy.
‘The Secret River’ starts in hope as the evening sun illuminates the rock face behind the stage. Ex-convict William Thornhill has just received a pardon and with his wife and two sons, starts making plans for the future. He decides that he will claim 100 acres of prime land on the Hawkesbury River, conferring his ownership by his mere presence.
The family’s initial encounters with the Dharug people already living there are gently condescending and the use of Dharug language without surtitles conveys the Thornhill family’s own incomprehension. Relations devolve into outright hostility as the reality slowly dawns on Thornhill and his wife Sal that they are not on Terra Nullius, but his resolve to claim this land as his own never wavers.
That the audience has considerable sympathy for him is testament to the nuanced portrayal of a man ruled by insecurities as he fights against the perceived injustice of his own life. We see the story evolve from both sides, and the supporting cast helps to ensure that there is comic relief as the inevitable conflict nears.
Despite a running time of almost three hours, there is no dead weight and the actors often run on and off the stage as they try to cram as much of the story in as possible.
The music augments their performances wonderfully, and the sound of songs from two cultures simultaneously reverberating in the natural amphitheatre while the shadows of the indigenous dancers are cast on the wall behind is unforgettable.
Though it is set in the early 19th century, ‘The Secret River’ is very pertinent to contemporary Australia. If there are a few dialogue choices that seem a bit heavy-handed it’s because they need to be. We Australians, as a society, have still not learned from this painful period in our colonial past and are doomed to repeat history until we do.
‘The Secret River’ is about home, entitlement and how we ended up in Australia today, and it’s a vital piece of theatre.
Adelaide is the last major city in Australia to see this production and due to the incredible setting, perhaps the most fortunate.
'The Secret River' plays at The Quarry, Anstey Hill Recreation Park until 19 March.