The Secret River, like so many great Australian texts, is a story about home. Where is home? What is home? Is it what you make, or is it something deeper, connected to tradition?
The obvious conflict between the white settlers’ concept of home and that of the Dharug people is set up early, as our freshly pardoned convict protagonist William Thornhill (played with drive and bafflement by Nathaniel Dean) proclaims that to take land as his own “all a man has to do is stand on it”.
Awkward encounters and spear-wielding stand-offs ensue with the original inhabitants when Thornhill makes his claim. They are ‘blacks’ to begin with, as Thornhill’s family tries to simultaneously assuage their worries and tell them to “bugger off”, but are soon referred to as ‘savages’ as the stakes increase, and ignorance of these intersecting cultures abounds.
Led by elder Yalamundi (a stoic Stephen Goldsmith) the Dharug people, who roam over a larger area than the 100 acres of prime land Thornhill claims, evidently just want things to stay the same. They, like their white counterparts, don’t quite understand what the other is up to, and neither wishes ill intent to begin with.
The Indigenous characters speak in a tongue undiscernible by most of the audience, so some of their scenes serve to show us the great breach of cultural difference here, but much communication is obvious to the audience. These are men, women and children with their own wants, needs, loves and rivalries.
While most of the white characters cannot resist othering the Dharug as ‘savages’, we as an audience, with our bird’s eye view of the story and history, know better. Watching the inevitable conflict unfold between these groups is tragic to say the least.
There might be few better places to stage The Secret River than the Anstey Hill Quarry. The natural landscape, with its rustling gum trees, bird calls, wind, stars and dirt, transports the audience far away from their regular lives, and into an outdoor past. Yet the fact that this is a quarry with millennia of the Earth’s work sheared out of a hill to create the towering man-made edifice behind the stage reminds us that thousands of years of history tower over this land.
This massive wall is used to great effect throughout the show, as warm and cool lights and walking shadows are projected to ominous effect. One particularly moving part of the play comes as the white settlers sit boxed, singing their songs, slowly circled by the Dharug people doing the same, whose shadows turn about them all.
The music too, does well to add humanity to all comers. From the nursery rhymes of the Thornhill family to the Dharug’s songs and chants, we appreciate the traditions of both tribes here, Indigenous or English.
Neil Armfield’s direction has included too many fine and quirky touches to be listed here, but among the best are the Dharug sentry always standing, always watching in the shadows beside the stage, and the constantly burning campfire, whose smoke is whipped and whisped across the stage to great effect.
There is, gratefully, light in this inevitably dark historical tale. The youngest son Dick Thornhill (joyously played by Jules Dawson) bridges the culture gap to make friends with the Dharug children (Dylan Miller and Liam Clarke, charming in their sibling rivalry), and Sal Thornhill (Georgia Adamson), who forever yearns to return to England, makes friends with two Dharug women in perhaps the funniest scene of the play.
Yet, as night is inevitable, so too is The Secret River’s dark conflict and conclusion. Miscommunication and malicious intent come together in a horrific and haunting finale, to drive home The Secret River’s message that this history, like the quarry wall, looms over us all.
The Secret River continues at the Anstey Hill Quarry until Sunday, March 19.
Photography: Shane Reid