The Secret River

Most people are familiar with Kate Grenville’s novel, published in 2005 and shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize. It features a convict called William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for life to New South Wales for stealing timber, whence he travels with his wife and two young boys and where, on receiving his absolute pardon, he sets his sights on a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney and then has to contend with the indigenous people whose land he is purloining.

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Nathaniel Dean (Thornhill) and Ningali Lawford Wolf (Dhirrumbin); Adelaide Festival programme

It was apparently the idea of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, then Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, to adapt the book into a stage play, for which purpose they hired the services of the playwright Andrew Bovell. The result, realised by director Neil Armfield, designed by Stephen Curtis and set in a quarry outside Adelaide, is one of the most memorable nights I have ever spent at the theatre.

Ms Grenville always stated she felt unable to tell her story from the point of view of the indigenous people, which is why they are shadowy entities in her book – always there but not quite defined. The same is not the case in the play. The Aboriginal people Thornhill is so afraid of are there in flesh and blood, speaking Dharug, the local language of the Hawkesbury – which, wisely I think, is not translated, so we the audience are as confused and perhaps as scared as Thornhill and his wife.

The play is narrated by a character called Dhirrumbin (Dharug for the Hawkesbury River). Played by Ningali Lawford Wolf she tells the story with a mixture of anger, regret and ruefulness. Never have I seen the misunderstandings between two cultures so vividly, humorously and ultimately tragically portrayed. When Thornhill in one scene confronts an Aboriginal elder and tells him forcibly to ‘go away’ the elder responds with what I assumed to be the same instruction in his own language, to which Thornhill replies, with relief, ‘Well at least we understand each other’. The massacre is portrayed twice: once from the white point of view, where we watch an advancing line of men with guns puffing on white powder (flour I think) to portray the musket shots – a wonderfully imaginative moment. Then, separately, we see the Aboriginal people, children and women among them, drop one by one to the ground so all this is left is a single wounded Aborigine.

The Anstey Hill Quarry, some distance out of Adelaide, is where the stone for the city’s first public buildings was excavated back in the 19th century. The play is set on a wide open stage with a painted floorcloth and a sheer cliff as backdrop. Live music is composed and performed by Iain Grandage on piano and cello, with the occasional addition of guitar and pipe; lights are set on scaffolding on either side of the stage. All in all a magical setting you could say, enhanced by uniformly supreme performances from the entire cast.

Secret River
Theatre backdrop (photo by Tony Trench)

I have a particular interest in the play of course as my own ancestors, featured in my book The Worst Country in the Worldwere granted land not far upstream from the fictional Thornhill* and his family, and at much the same time. They were the lucky ones, they did not have to fight for what they considered their ‘official’ right to the land; which would not have made a scrap of difference to the indigenous local people of course, to whom an interloper was an interloper.

The subject of the British invasion of New South Wales is a sensitive one, to say the least. But with a mixture of humour, compassion and even-handedness this presentation of The Secret River achieves the near-impossible: by focusing on one family in one place at one time it manages to encapsulate the much bigger story of western colonisation of Australia

Miraculous. What I want to know now is when will we colonisers have the chance to see this wonderful production back in the UK? National Theatre, I hope you are reading this.

*Yet based loosely on Grenville’s great x 3 grandfather Solomon Wiseman.

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Our Country’s Good

In 1789, barely a year after the First Fleet of convicts and marines arrived in New South Wales, the governor, Arthur Phillip – who was a remarkable and unusual man – made the remarkable and unusual suggestion that the convicts stage a play. The chosen piece was ‘The Recruiting Officer’ by George Farquhar, and the chosen playmaster was a junior officer called Lieutenant Ralph Clark.

National Theatre programme
National Theatre programme

Out of this unusual and remarkable story the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker crafted a funny and moving play called Our Country’s Good, adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker and first produced at the Royal Court Theatre back in 1988. Now the National Theatre is giving the play a welcome revival, but maybe it was the vastness of the Olivier stage that dissipated much of the intimacy of the relationships at the heart of the play, or the slow pace of the action (it was a second preview), but somehow the joyful, redemptive play that I remember from all those years ago was not as moving or as funny as I was expecting.

The director has made the unusual decision to cast Afro-Caribbean actors in the roles of Governor Phillip and the witty and elegant Watkin Tench. I am all for colour-blind casting but since this is partly a story of the colonisation of a black country by a white one, in this instance it is just confusing. The aboriginal community is represented by one actor (one more than in the BBC TV series ‘Banished’), who observes, and dances, and eventually speaks his thoughts (in cultured English, another jarring note).

Governor Phillip (wikipedia)
Governor Phillip (wikipedia)

But all power to the actors, and in particular to Jason Hughes (Midsommer Murders) who manages to turn the uptight, slightly humourless Ralph Clark into a warm and interesting human being; and to Lee Ross, who takes on the role of the ‘thespian’ Sideway and makes him both hilarious and totally believable. The music is an unusual (and remarkable) mix of gospel, slave-song and guitar, with just the right mix of didgeridoo – previously recorded in Australia I believe.

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(wikipedia)
(wikipedia)

In preparation for seeing the play I have been re-reading Keneally’s book. He calls it a novel, but more surprisingly he states that ‘All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental’. However virtually all his characters, from the governor and his bad-tempered deputy Major Robbie Ross to the convicts Robert Sideway and Mary Brennan – who Clark casts in his play and with whom he later had a child – were not only real people but are represented by Keneally pretty accurately.

In his Author’s Note Keneally acknowledges ‘… that in making this fiction he found rich material in such works as ‘The Journal and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark … and David Collins’s An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales’. Out of idle curiosity I glanced through both of these to find that while Clark kept intimate diaries of some of his early years in the colony the relevant period in 1789 is missing. And all Collins has to say about it was: ‘The anniversary of his Majesty’s birth-day … was observed with every distinction in our power; … the detachment of marines fired three vollies, which were followed by twenty-one guns from each of the ships of war in the cove … and in the evening some of the convicts were permitted to perform Farquhar’s comedy of the Recruiting Officer, in a hut fitted up for the occasion. They professed no higher aim than “humbly to excite a smile,” and their efforts to please were not unattended with applause.’[1] (They did love their double negatives in those days.)

So all power to Thomas Keneally and to Timberlake Wertenbaker for drawing to our attention such a remarkable (and unusual) event in the earliest days of the colony. And to the National Theatre for transporting us temporarily to that remarkable and much-ignored (in this country) continent.

Finally – a note to the programme compilers: Norfolk Island is not off the coast of Tasmania.

Patsy Trench, August 2015
patsytrench@gmail.com

[1] An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Chapter VII. http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/colacc1.pdf