THE SECRET RIVER
KIng’s Theatre (Edinburgh International Festival)
August 2 to 10 7.30 pm August 3,8,10,11. 1.30 pm.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)
At the close of this play, with applause roaring around us, the guy sitting next to me said how new this historical situation was to him, and how regrettable that such things are hardly touched on in school curricula.
The situation was that of cockney William Thornhill, his wife and two sons, transported to Australia in 1806, after he is reprieved from hanging for the theft of a length of Brazil wood. Having had nothing in London, Thornhill finds he can stake a claim to a hundred acres beside the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. He sees a great new future for him and his family. His wife would like to return to London, but when Thornhill goes to the dock to hire an extra hand for his land the British officer in charge immediately reminds him of his past, recognises him from his ship, and treats him like dirt.
Of course, the land he has claimed is not truly his to claim. It is owned and occupied by the Dharug people. Relations between the settlers and the original owners go through various phases, but build towards conflict. One side telling the other to go away and the other saying just the same, and without a common language, was never going to end easily.
William’s younger son, Dick, becomes friendly with the Dharug people, plays with them, swims with them – his family are amazed by the idea of swimming for pleasure – but William beats young Dick for this involvement and the two begin to take separate paths.
There is a large and engaging cast of characters, both settler and Dharug. The Dhirrumbin (NIngali Lawford-Wolf) is narrator, but it is unfortunate that her words are not infrequently obscured by a too loud score. The play is adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell from the novel by Kate Grenville, and although the novel was only published in 2005 it is regarded as an Australian classic and is highly regarded. This production by the Sydney Theatre company was first seen in 2013.
The set is large, vivid and inspires a sense of a fascinating wild land. The play is epic in scale, and moves gradually towards its dark conclusion. Both communities, Londoners and Dharug, sing their traditional songs and rhymes, and there is a sense of two peoples wanting the same thing, but there is to be no compromise, and the settlers will not relent.
This is a very rewarding and accomplished drama, one very well worth experiencing, and a story that, as my fellow audience member said, deserves to be better known.