The Secret River

Roslyn Packer Theatre, February 5

Secret res
Ningali Lawford-Wolf. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.


Endless storytelling possibilities were open to playwright Andrew Bovell and director Neil Armfield in adapting Kate Grenville’s novel for the stage. By opting for a profound sense of ritual, intermingled with stylised theatricality and laced with enchantment, they arrived at a deeper, more poetic truth than naturalism could ever have allowed.

Set designer Stephen Curtis’s backdrop of a supernaturally large eucalypt dwarfing the players establishes the vastness of the continent, while creating a sense of place with the economy of a single brushstroke. This sense of place and belonging is the beating heart of Grenville’s story of early Australian colonisation: the Hawkesbury’s Dharug people have it in their genes, and the freed convict William Thornhill is desperate to define his identity by land he can call his own.

At its best this revival of Sydney Theatre Company’s 2013 production rivals Armfield’s unforgettable Cloudstreet in terms of the light touch of his coups de theatre (and two of his Cloudstreet team, composer Iain Grandage and costume designer Tess Schofield, again collaborate). A rope becomes a boat, for instance, and blowing a pinch of flour into the air depicts a musket being fired. Grandage’s exquisite music, superbly realised on piano and cello by Isaac Haywood, almost becomes another character and certainly heightens the sense of ritual.

In such a theatrical world the actors have some stylistic latitude. Nathaniel Dean just gets away with making his Thornhill relentlessly loud in an effort to depict his obsessiveness. Georgia Adamson wraps a steel core in a compassionate exterior as his wife, and amid a cast of 19 Richard Piper and Bruce Spence excel as Smasher Sullivan and Loveday. Ningali Lawford-Wolf’s Dhirrumbin/Narrator is a crucial role, alchemizing narrative into dreams, and although Lawford-Wolf has an ideal voice, insecurities with the text jarred.

While the cultural clash between inhabitants and settlers is a source of humour and charm as well as awkwardness and misunderstanding, the decent to butchery is a dark cloud of inevitability lying over this extraordinary piece of theatre from the outset, until all that remains is a heartbreaking lament.

Until February 20.