Festival Review: The Secret River

Festival Review: The Secret River

It’s not often that a production comes along that defines the term ‘a fully theatrical experience’, but this production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, is just that.


Presented by Sydney Theatre Company, Adelaide Festival and State Theatre Company South Australia
Reviewed 2 March 2017

It’s not often that a production comes along that clearly defines the term ‘a fully theatrical experience’, but this production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell is just that.

How very lucky are we South Australians that Co-Artistic Director of this year’s Adelaide Festival, Neil Armfield decided to remount his 2013 Sydney Theatre Company success here with the help of our own State Theatre Company. But, if that was not enough, Armfield, rather than stage it in the Dunstan Playhouse, decided to move it outdoors to the Anstey Hill Quarry. What a brilliant move!.

Set in the 1800s, in New South Wales, on the Hawkesbury River, The Secret River explores the clash of cultures and the conflict between the ‘white’ man and the indigenous Australians – and Land Rights. Pardoned convict, William Thornhill ‘takes up’ land on the Hawkesbury in order to build a home for his family, but the land is already ‘home’ to the Dharug people.

Armfield’s production does not put a foot wrong anywhere. The large cast is uniformally strong, with Nathaniel Dean leading them superbly as Thornhill. He and Georgia Adamson as his wife, Sal, are completely believable as a couple bringing up boys in the outback. There is strength to both of them. Mention must also be made of Ningali Lawford Wolf who as Dhirrumbin, narrates the story almost as if it is a Dreamtime legend, never once causing the audience to loose focus.

Armfield dots the production with emotionally haunting pictures – the end of Act One and the climax to Act Two in particular; but gives us some very amusing moments, especially at the start of Act Two with the Aboriginal boys playing their version of “Statues”.

But the real star of the show is the set: the cliff that towers in the background, dwarfing all before it. Mother Nature is the designer of this set, making other set pieces unnecessary: the stage is virtually bare of any dressing except a camp fire. On Opening Night, even the gully breezes played their part, blowing chillier as Act Two got more and more dramatic.

The cliff sets the tone for this marvellous production, and it’s not only Armfield who has wisely acknowledged that. Mark Howett’s lighting design cleverly and brilliantly incorporates the natural light and how it plays on that magnificent cliff.

This production of The Secret River is destined to stay in the minds of all who see it for many reasons: its storytelling; its scope; its message; and its absolutely wonderful theatricality.

Reviewed by Brian Godfrey
Twitter: @briangods

Photo credit: Shane Reid

Venue: Anstey Hill Quarry
Season: Until 19 March 2017
Duration: 2 hours 50 mins (including interval)
Tickets: $40 -$99


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