The Secret River

Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s acclaimed novel delivers a tale of life on the land.

It’s been close to 17 years since Armfield directed a play at STC but the renowned director was lured back to the fold to helm this adaptation of Kate Grenville’s tale The Secret River. Adapted by Andrew Bovell, Grenville’s novel becomes a sweeping and epic theatrical event that will live on in the memory of Sydney’s theatre-goers.

Some four years in the making, The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) – convict turned free settler – lured by the possibility of land and riches to make his home on the Hawkesbury River.

Thornhill dreams of owning a place to call his own – to stake his claim on the land and name it for himself and his forebears. It’s a lofty yet simple dream, from a man who was brought up in the London slums. Unfortunately Thornhill’s dream will come at great cost for the land’s traditional inhabitants, the Dharug tribe, who love this patch of river just as much as he and refuse to give it up… The ensuing battle for ownership has tragic consequences for all involved.

It’s a now familiar story – the unconscionable treatment of this nation’s original inhabitants by colonists.

In the skillful hands of first Grenville (and then Bovell’s adaptation, Armfield’s direction and the excellent cast) the real thrust – having a place to call home and the attachment to the land that brings, a sense of belonging and peace – is really driven home.

You understand Thornhill’s yearning to take ownership of this strip of river, despite the discomfort of his wife and the terrible cost to the Dharug people. Thornhill is less a villain and more a man driven by a profound passion that will end in sorrow.

Armfield’s direction is assured, navigating the play’s darker themes with compassion and care and adding some lighter moments that really establish the different views of the Thornhill family towards the land and its inhabitants.

Nathaniel Dean is wonderful as Thornhill – delivering a performance tempered by longing. Anita Hegh adds humour as his wife Sal who yearns to return home and is simply biding her time in this hostile land. Jeremy Sims is superb as Smasher Sullivan the villain of the piece whose disdain for the Dharug is brutal and savage.  Ursula Yovich, acting as the play’s narrator watches over the story as it drives to its inevitable tragic conclusion. For we know already that this is going to end badly for the Dharug who sing their dreamtime songs, share their knowledge of medicine and the land and like Thornhill are just waiting for the other to leave…

Hearing the Dharug language spoken on stage and watching the rituals and day to day life of the people, is also what makes this play so authentic.

The Secret River is a standout new work that has benefitted from a long gestation, fantastic direction, evocative set (thanks Stephen Curtis) and an ensemble cast that is uniformly wonderful. The play’s indictment on the brutal treatment of the indigenous people at the hands of the colonists is tempered yet never shies away from the truth. and watching the  diffferent relationships the Thronhills have to the land and the Dharug is compelling.