The Secret River
February 25-March 2
His Majesty's Theatre
The story of The Secret River springs from the most fundamental of Australian experiences - arrival, possession and trespass.
Kate Grenville's acclaimed 2005 convict-era frontier novel deeply dug into these issues by pitting the transported petty thief William Thornhill's claim to take people in the Hawkesburyup land against the pre-existing rights of the Dharug River region he attempts to settle.
For the Sydney Theatre Company, its stage adaptation is a landmark production involving a dream team headed by director Neil Armfield, writer Andrew Bovell and choreographer Stephen Page. Music and costume design come from Armfield's collaborators on his seminal 1998 production of Cloudstreet, Iain Grandage and Tess Schofield. As with Cloudstreet, Grandage performs on stage as an integral part of the company.
Led by Jeremy Sims, Colin Moody, Trevor Jamieson, Ursula Yovich and Bruce Spence, the cast of 22 is more than twice as many as the STC assembled for its eight-hour The War of the Roses in 2009 and the biggest since it staged the nine-hour Nicholas Nickleby 30 years ago.
Yet despite the epic subject matter in The Secret River, its running time is an economical two hours.
Bovell (When the Rain Stops Falling, Lantana) has cut to the chase in his adaptation of Grenville's novel. He has excised the early chapters dealing with how the impoverished Thames boatman, Thornhill, came to be dumped on Australia's penal shores and met his new wife, Sal.
For Bovell, the dramatic heart of the story is the conflict over the piece of land to the Dharug.along the Hawkesbury, known as Dhirrumbin
"Grenville's novel deals with a dark and tragic part of our history; a history that Australia is still coming to terms with," Bovell says. "The central moral question at play is what price is Thornhill prepared to pay for this new life?"
As with most novels, Grenville's book takes us inside the heads of William (Nathaniel Dean) and Sal Thornhill (Anita Hegh), brutalised by the deprivation of early 19th century England and trying to make sense of their unfamiliar new world.
"The great challenge of the adaptation is how to make the internal world of the characters external; how to make it exist and felt within dramatic action," Bovell says.
Grenville's novel also gives us a portrait of the Dharug people but they are observed at a distance, through the eyes of the European characters. "It is impossible to maintain this distance in the stage version," Bovell says. "The adaptation must bring us closer to these people and render them in all their dimensions as human beings, as characters as rich and complex as the white characters in the story."
Unlike in the novel, these characters speak. On stage, they will be heard by the audience in their Dharug language, spoken by actors Trevor Jamieson and Miranda Tapsell as the Aboriginal counterparts to the Thornhills.
In Bovell's version, Yovich takes on the role of a narrator, giving voice to the land and the river.
"We have had linguist Richard Green come in to teach us the language," says Jamieson, who can't wait to bring The Secret River to Perth next month for the Festival after seasons in Sydney and Canberra.
"After the initial communication breakdown that happened, we get to present them (the Dharug) in this way," Jamieson says. "The book makes mention of them but we thought there needs to be a live feeling of the people being around. The story is told in the eyes of the settlers and their accounts of Aboriginal people but we have got Ursula Yovich as the narrator and the voice of the Dhirrumbin which is the Hawkesbury River. We come to life by using the language, by being there."
There will be no subtitles to assist the audience, who will have to glean meaning from the accompanying body language, choreographed by Page, the head of Bangarra Dance Theatre.
"We are trying our best to put choreographed movement in to help people understand the meaning of the spoken words," says Jamieson, whose past work includes Namatjira and Ngapartji Ngapartji.
"The language does seem to dance so we hope that when the audience hears the language they can understand not only through our movement, we are dancing alongside the story. We are giving people a new listening aid for a language that has been there for thousands of years."