When a book is adapted for the stage or screen, the impact of the words is often lost. This is not the case with the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, a powerful story that loses nothing in its translation to the stage.
Adapted by Andrew Bovell and directed by Neil Armfield, this is quite simply a stunning piece of theatre. Simply told, with restrained performances that clearly resonated with its Brisbane audience at the Playhouse Theatre when I saw it last weekend.
The Secret River tells a story of two families divided by culture and land. First, we meet William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean), who has been transported to Australia as a convict from the slums of London in 1806 but is now a free man. William has a wife, Sal (Georgia Adamson), two young sons, and a dream to own his own piece of land. Sal dreams of going “home” to London. She agrees to five years on the land he’s seen on the banks of the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, and they begin to make a life there.
There’s just one problem. The land is already occupied by the family of Ngalamalum (Trevor Jamieson) and soon they realise that the Thornhills have no intention of moving on.
Over two acts, we see the story play out as the indigenous and European families struggle to understand each others’ concepts of ownership and identity. The final, terrible outcome is already known to anyone who has read the book. Its treatment here is no less devastating (although less graphically violent than the television mini-series that was screened last year).
On opening night in Brisbane, the audience rose to its feet to applaud the cast as the lead actors embraced. It was sustained applause but somewhat muted. No cat-calls, no shouts of “bravo”….just a long, intense ovation by an audience left sobered and – in some cases – in tears.
It’s a short Brisbane season only, ending on March 5. But this production is on a national tour, with its next stop at the Arts Centre Melbourne from March 10-19. If you can, catch it there.
Kate Grenville‘s novel The Secret River was based on her own family history. It was published to great acclaim in 2005, and she followed it up with Searching for the Secret River, which chronicles her personal story of how she came to write it as she attempted to discover more about her convict ancestor. If you have read The Secret River, you will enjoy it; if you are a writer, it is a wonderful insight into how one of Australia’s finest novelists works. I’ve got them both in my bookcase, and I think it’s time to re-read them.