The Secret River

The Secret River Adelaide Festival 2017Adelaide Festival. Sydney Theatre Company presented by Adelaide Festival and State Theatre Company of SA. Anstey’s Quarry. 5 Mar 2017


It was an act of genius by Neil Armfield to locate The Secret River in Anstey’s Quarry.

The Kate Grenville saga is about home but it is also about the lure and significance of the Australian landscape. Armfield has made the landscape star of the show.

Every way in which the mighty open-cut cliff face of the quarry is presented is in some way awe-inspiring.


With Mark Howett’s superb lighting, it adds mood and comment to every moment of the play.

As the audience arrives, the quarry is beautiful in sunlight, showing off the rich veins of warm ochre hues which are so typical of the Australian landscape. Blackened saplings cling perilously to the rock face. Spreading, leafy eucalypts are silhouetted on its crest.


As the sun sets, the piercing blue sky turns to amber and the rocks glow. Then, throughout the night, the rocks play their part in the play, sometimes mottled and cheerful, sometimes playing with the dancing shadows of the actors, sometimes ominous and dark, sometimes sharply illuminated and etched in their own shadows. The stars come out above. Wind rustles the trees.

It also whips through the audience perched on bleachers.

Warm day turns to chilly night. Very chilly. Audience members huddle in rugs and cling together. They suffer for their art.

But they are rewarded.


Grenville’s plot line is well known, here deftly re-imagined for the stage by our beloved playwright Andrew Bovell. It is the tale of naive, barely literate English convicts claiming land with no comprehension that the land is already occupied by Aboriginal people. Thus is it the confrontation of white and black, the misguided concept of Terra Nullius. The audience knows it will not end well.


When William Thornhill gets his pardon and takes his family up into Hawksbury, he lays claim to glorious land which he soon finds is occupied by Dharug people. They don’t understand each other. He wants them to go away. They want him to go away. He wants to grow corn on the land. They have always harvested prized native food there.


The early interactions are tense but slowly, once Thornhill’s young son has befriended the Aboriginal children, an uneasy friendship begins to emerge. Thornhill finally realises that there is much to learn from the original inhabitants.


However, the Thornhills are not the only white settlers in the area.


Bovell and Armfield paint these white settlers as truly ugly people, ignorant and morally squalid. Criminals. Cockney scum, not the sort to respect Colonial decrees about not killing the Aboriginals.

Armfield makes them into caricatures and the actors clearly relish the freedom to ham it up to the hilt, especially Richard Piper as the violent and scary Smasher Sullivan. There’s gravy on his ham.

Bruce Spence with long oily hair and whiteface is rather ghoul-like; shades of Lurch from the Addams Family.


Saggity, played by Matthew Sunderland, is crass and boorish and Dan Oldfield, the convict Thornhill takes on as staff, is fresh blood and a wily wheeler dealer. Then there is the tough old Mrs Herring, a pipe-chewing survivor. It is a fabulous cameo role nicely embodied by Jennifer Hagan.


Most interesting is Thomas Blackwood who has respected and liked the Aboriginals and settled down happily with an Aboriginal woman. Colin Moody is simply wonderful in this role, dignified, powerful and wise. One loves him. His wife is played by Ningali Lawford Wolf who also plays the immense role of narrator. She is a magnificent presence on stage. The sharp clear edge of her voice pierces the night air and not a word is lost, even to the echoes of the cliff face.


The Aboriginal cast altogether is superb. Steven Goldsmith is graceful and stately as Yalamundi, the Elder. Frances Djulibing is both funny and moving as old Buryia and it is pleasing to see that Bovell has allowed the Aboriginal sense of humour to shine brightly through this adaptation. It makes all the more appalling the bloody denouement of the play - and the human tragedy of our colonial history.


The other tribal members are played delightfully by Natasha Wanganeen, Shaka Cook, Dylan Miller, Marcus Corowa and alternating lads as the younger child Garraway. These all are strong, generous and committed performances - and brave, considering their bare skin in the chilly night quarry.


While the white father, William, is the force of the Cockney family central to The Secret River and Nathaniel Dean’s husky voice and Cockney twang emphasise the contrast of the two races, it is his wife Sal and the compassionate performance of Georgia Adamson who delivers the heart and soul of the story. Their two sons are played by a changing cast of young people on alternate nights, and very well too, judging by the Saturday night lads.


Armfield has delivered to this potent work some very special elements, not the least of them the pack of Smasher’s fierce dogs played by the male actors on long pieces of rope. They are almost more believable than the real thing.


The Stephen Curtis set and the Iain Grandage music complement the dramatic entity ideally. However, when it comes to the greatest impact of this Festival experience, it is Anstey and the lighting which will linger forever in mind’s eye.


Samela Harris


When: 5 to 19 Mar

Where: Anstey’s Quarry


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