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Jeremy Sims and Nathaniel Dean.

One of the most terrifying experiences in literature is reaching part six of Kate Grenville's widely acclaimed 2005 novel The Secret River and seeing nothing on the page but those stark, simple words, like an inscription on a gravestone:

PART SIX. The Secret River.

If it's your first time through the book, you are already filled with such foreboding you can barely read on. If you are rereading it, you know precisely what is to come. Your heart is in your mouth, your eyes already brimming with tears. Because this is where the massacre takes place.

Writer Andrew Bovell, director Neil Armfield and artistic associate Stephen Page's brilliant stage adaptation - so grand in its scale and conception and yet so powerfully stark and simple in its execution - delivers the same injection of extreme emotion directly into the bloodstream - and more besides.

Indeed, it's fair to say this first commission for the Sydney Theatre Company by then joint artistic directors Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett, albeit taking years to come to fruition, is an instant classic.

Grenville's evocative, highly textured novel - since many of the characters and events related therein are fictional she avoids the term "historical novel" - tells the story of pardoned convict William Thornhill's struggle to make a new life for himself and his family in colonial Australia after being transported from England. He squats on land by the magnificent Hawkesbury River, initially without realising and then not caring that it is already occupied by members of the local indigenous population, the Dharug. It's a decision that will have tragic consequences, not just for the Dharug people but for Thornhill's own humanity.

The genius of this stage adaptation is the stripping away of the certain aspects of the novel - the early scenes in London are done away with altogether - and the fleshing-out of the indigenous characters. There is a subtle shift of emphasis, an artistic reconciliation, that has received Grenville's enthusiastic blessing.

"Kate's thrilled," says Armfield over the phone during a break in rehearsals in Canberra.

"She was always very excited that our approach was opening up the area of the novel which had been closed to her. She came to a rehearsal and even at interval her face was wet with tears.

"She said 'I can't tell you what it's like to feel so deeply understood. As a novelist you spend your life in a room by yourself and even though you go to writers' festivals and things and you get the support of your readers, being in this room now feels like I'm surrounded by people who I've collaborated with.' That was very important to us."

Armfield is one of Australia's most important stage directors and the founder and former artistic director of Company B. He says when Blanchett and Upton approached him with the idea of adapting The Secret River he was worried they were going to think it was "another Cloudstreet" - which Armfield had so successfully helped bring to the stage in 1998.

"I told them it's so far away from Cloudstreet in terms of what the audience would be left with," he says.

Which is what, precisely? It's hard to quantify, but Armfield answers it best this way.

"When I read the opening words of Andrew's script - 'Let us start with the sounds of the river' - it triggered in my imagination a very calm way of putting it on the stage," he says. "A lot of people have spoken about the gentleness of the production and I love how when the massacre happens, its power somehow comes from its silence."

A silence, says Armfield, that exists in the gaps between the cultures of the Dharug and the English settlers.

"That became apparent as something both extremely theatrical and somehow right at the core of our own cultural psyche," he says, describing the process of working with Dharug language adviser Richard Green as they moved towards giving life to the indigenous characters.

"That was always going to be the challenge - giving life to the Dharug which in Kate's book are only viewed through the eyes of the European characters. But once you're putting people up on stage everyone has to have their own centre of gravity and their own reality."

Apart from Stephen Curtis' startling set design - Armfield has been working on and off with him for three decades - another essential component of the production is WA-born composer and performer Iain Grandage's score and onstage performances.

"I've done three projects with Iain now, including Cloudstreet, and they've all involved him being in that corner of the stage creating the music during rehearsal," Armfield says. "He always engages the entire company, creating the musical life of the play. It becomes this kind of fluid in which the whole production dances. His work is incalculable in the way it enriches the experience."

Asked about the reaction from indigenous audiences, Armfield says it's been "really good".

"There was some anxiety amongst the indigenous cast that there might be a kind of reaction against it, particularly among the indigenous arts community," he says. "That hasn't happened as far as I am aware. It's been seen as a very responsible and truthful and artistically complete rendering."

Armfield says that ultimately he hopes the production, the huge cast of which includes Nathaniel Dean, Trevor Jamieson, Jeremy Sims, Bruce Spence and Ursula Yovich, will "play into people's imagination, into their memory, into their intelligence and into their heart in a way only theatre can".