Who owns the land? What if the land you think is yours already ‘belongs’ to someone else? The tragedy that is Australian history, the encounter between the ‘savages’ and the white former convict settlers is movingly portrayed in The Secret River based on Kate Grenville’s epic novel, adapted by Andrew Bovell and directed by Neil Armfield. Facing up to this history is a form of reparation and also sadly depicts opportunities which, if taken, might have led to a different outcome.
What if the land you think is yours already ‘belongs’ to someone else?
Atmospherically accompanied by live music composed by Iain Grandage, there is also a Narrator who represents the ‘secret’ river, called Hawkesbury by the whites but Dhirrumbim or Deerubbun to the First Nation peoples. The actor, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, who should have played the River/Narrator, was sadly taken ill and this and another part she played had to be performed by other members of the cast. This Narrator part skilfully links past and present and provides context.
Birdsong, of a kind unfamiliar to westerners’ ears, starts the show against a blank creased backdrop, occasionally showing isolated trees, suggesting the vast Australian bush. Eucaliptus branches frame the stage. It appears to be an empty landscape, with no fences marking off ownership. Then a group of Darug people enter: a magnificently white-beared elder, Yalamundi played by Major ‘Moogy’ Sumner and warriors carrying long spears. They speak their own language, Daruk, throughout so that the audience experiences the same incomprehension as the white settlers, but the fact that it is a real language and not just portrayed as gibberish give the Darug a rightful dignity and suggests another, equally sophisticated culture, if only the whites could try to find out what. Yalamundi meets aggression and orders to get off his land by William Thornhill with quiet majesty. Hand gestures suggest that the chief also wants Thornhill to move off this land.
Thoughtfully, the play first shows us the Thornhill family, William, Sal and two children In London and the poverty and hopelessness of their lives, so that when William, a thief has his sentence for hanging commuted and he is transported to Australia, we sympathise with him. A future he would never have had in London is offered: the thrill of ‘owning’ his own land - he runs about shouting and pointing: ‘ My tree’ or scrambles up a hill to show his youngest son where he will build, one day, a stone house. Thornhill is shown to be a good man, humane in his dealings with the Darug at first. It would have been too easy just to make all the white characters evil.
There are plenty of baddies, however. Cleverly three of them play dogs when we first see them, barking in frenzy. Later we warm to them as humans, especially tall, straggling long-haired Loveday, played by Bruce Spence. And the other two, Smasher Sullivan (Jeremy Sims) and Saggitty Birtles (Mathew Sunderland) are played hilariously as loveable rogues - at first, until things turn nasty. One Thomas Blackwood (played sympathetically by Colin Moody) has a Darug wife, though he wants this kept secret. A pipe-smoking old Mrs Herring,brief and to the point,is played with great character by Melissa Jaffer. She is a female friend in this community of men to Sal, Thornhill’s wife.
It is Sal, despite her longing for home (which is still London for her), who creates a relationship with two Darug women, as they exchange gifts – mostly food, though some hilarious bargaining over Sal’s skirt. She understands the Darug are thinking the same as them: hoping they will just move away. But it is the youngest son, Dick (charmingly played by Toby Challenor) who plays games with the Darug children, eventually learns some words in the their language. He even watches the Darug create fire out of two sticks rubbed together. A way forward for the two tribes, white and indigenous to live peacefully side by side, but this hopeful opportunity is smashed by his father who beats him for swimming naked with the Darug boys. The violent turn events will take is prefigured.
Sal almost dies in child-birth and saved by Blackwood’s Darug wife, Dulla Djin, notably played by a stand-in, Elma Kris, cringing in fear of the whites then commanding respect. This opportunity to create a bond between the Thornhills and the Darug also fails. As the play turns darker and darker, Thornhill listen to the group of baddies who think violence is the only way to get rid of the ‘savages’. The massacre that follows is shown, first from the settlers’ point of view firing their guns, then re-enacted with the Darug falling slowly, one by one, to the ground, giving their deaths a solemn dignity. The play ends with the one survivor, Ngalamalum (performed by Shaka Cook) maimed, sitting on the ground, singing a heart-breaking lament in Daruk. Thornhill despises him for just sitting in the dirt. “This is my place,” replies quietly. A devastating end to the play.