★★★★½ Finely realised stagecraft, an ensemble on form and a story that invites all Australians to reflect.

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney
February 5, 2016

Three years after its premiere on the Sydney Theatre Company’s main stage, Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel maintains its profound storytelling power, as an emancipated convict, Will Thornhill, “takes up” land on the Hawkesbury River in the early years of the 19th century, only to be drawn into frontier murder of indigenous people.

The base of an enormous gum tree is the backdrop, dwarfing the performers and reminding us this is no new country whose original inhabitants can simply “bugger off”. There is a small open fire, and the scent of eucalypt. Stephen Curtis’ set design, Mark Howett’s lighting and music played on stage from Iain Grandage’s score by multi-instrumentalist Isaac Hayward and others all harmonise empathetically with the unfolding of tragic human miscommunication.

Shaka Cook, Madeleine Madden and Isaac Hayward © Heidrun Löhr

The Secret River, as Neil Armfield confirms in his programme director’s note, continues to evolve as a stage work. In 2013, performer Ursula Yovich sang a song in the finale, playing both narrator Dhirrumbin and Dulla Djin, the lover of the reasoned white man Blackwood (Jeremy Sims in 2013, Colin Moody in 2016). It was a deftly realised final moment that lingers; Yovich has a soulful tone built upon personal struggle with such material. “The play brings up a lot of hurt,” Yovich poignantly wrote to Armfield in 2012, grappling with whether to take part in the premiere season. “We all know the history, what comes next.”

This time around, Ningali Lawford-Wolf (recently seen in the film Last Cab to Darwin) plays Dhirrumbin/Dulla Djin, and is also a captivating storyteller on stage – even as she sometimes tripped on her words on opening night – but here Lawford-Wolf doesn’t sing. There is a new ending, involving Trevor Jamieson, who plays Ngalamallum, the Dharug warrior who befriends ex-convict Thornhill’s youngest son, Dick. The final moment is equal to Yovich’s coda. Future directors of this play – for surely this work will become part of an Australian theatrical cannon – have a choice between two equally throat-knotting endings.

Jamieson’s muscular, magnetic performance meanwhile is the equal to that of Nathaniel Dean, who originated and continues the stage role of white invader Thornhill: both commanding performances imbued with a pathos as the characters make their respective claims on the soil and haphazardly attempt to trade in food, sometimes comically, but inexorably slipping into fury, poisoning and gunfire. Jamieson played virtually the same role in the mini-series of The Secret River, seen on ABC last year, in which the character was called Gumang or Grey Beard (or Whisker Harry in Grenville’s novel).

Kelton Pell and Nathaniel Dean © Heidrun Löhr

Georgina Adamson brings the right balance of vulnerability and toughness in her debut as Thornhill’s wife, Sal. Rory Potter, charmingly memorable on stage three years ago as Dick Thornhill, the white child who represented the Australia of reconciliation that might have been, moves up to the adolescent role of eldest son Willie, which he also played in the TV adaptation. This time around, Toby Challenor ably fills the younger boy’s role, a free spirit not yet encumbered by prejudice, a vessel upon which to project our own better selves, as he plays with the Aboriginal boys and learns to make fire.

In just under three hours, the play manages to give a stronger sense of indigenous voices than the mini-series, for all its vivid and gripping rendering of the novel, manages to achieve in a similar time. In her book, Grenville, perhaps wisely, does not try to inhabit the minds of the indigenous people, or tell their story.

Grenville based her book on how she imagined her own great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman, took up land west along the Hawkesbury. The author has subsequently referred to the euphemistic “dispersal” of Aboriginal people as a “guerrilla war”, although she has no evidence of Wiseman’s involvement in killing. Henry Reynolds, in his 2013 book Forgotten War, for which Grenville wrote an approving foreword, says some 2,500 settlers died in more than a century of conflict, while “steeply upwards to 30,000 [indigenous people] and beyond, perhaps well beyond” were killed. The Australian War Memorial recognises none of it.

The Hawkesbury, incidentally, is named after a British baron and lord; its indigenous name is Deerubbin, which means “wide, deep water”. Dharug language begins the play and is heard throughout. Dharug man Richard Green was employed as a language consultant, and Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director Stephen Page was an artistic associate on the play. Perhaps one day, an indigenous artist might turn such a story around to make the indigenous perspective the greater focus.

Armfield meanwhile is partly drawing from a deep Western theatrical well in this beautifully realised vision. When several of the obstreperous white folk gather to sing a homesick London ditty – Smasher Sullivan (Richard Piper), Loveday (Bruce Spence), Sagitty Birtles (Matthew Sunderland) and Mrs Herring (Jennifer Hagan) with her ever-present pipe – their pancake white makeup and black comedic characterisation momentarily recalled more surreal stage history: perhaps Armfield’s own production of Patrick White’s A Ham Funeral of 1989.

Some of the cast of the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River © Heidrun Löhr

When Piper strode onto set, loudly projecting and ramping up the villainy as Smasher, I wondered if his performance needed to be dialled down, that it was out of kilter with the more realist mood, but subsequently, set among his group of fellow malcontents, Piper’s performance fused into a coherent vision: these lost souls would be worthy of Beckett players, albeit their absurdist switch is flicked to carnival grotesque as they swoop into violence.

The indigenous narrative voice, in English, invites us all to own this shared story, this piece of our history. In 2016, as in 2013, a prompt opening night standing ovation unleashed an audience’s appreciation but also pent-up emotion: a rebuke, in part, to centuries of silence and denial about the genocide upon which modern Australia was built.

Sydney Theatre Company and Allens present The Secret River at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until February 20, then on tour to Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, February 25-March 5, and Arts Centre Melbourne, March 10-19.

Sydney Tickets

Brisbane Tickets

Melbourne Tickets