This review should not have happened. A sold out show I hadn't booked suddenly, through great providence and the generosity of a friendly fellow-critic, opened up the chance to see this. A vitally necessary story of the horror that lives at the beginning of white Australian history and colours our past to this day, "The Secret River" brings theatrical life to a popular novel (that I've never read) and is essential theatre for anybody whether you're watching for the politics, the emotional journey or for something visually fascinating.
The story is about Will Thornhill, a recently freed convict who takes his family to establish a home on the Hawkesbury river, and what happens when he comes face to face with the Dharug people who've been living there, is a story where we can see what's going to go wrong from fairly early on (the line "he realised how easy it was for a man to have land just by standing on it and claiming it" (paraphrased as I don't have the script) perfectly expresses that grand hope that often leads to disastrous ends).
Yet this is never just lecture theatre, telling us "what our ancestors did wrong". It's engaging throughout, in that we can see the tragedy coming, but we can also see the joyous life that is under peril - the chance to live together that was lost through fear of the other. There's brilliance and intelligence at every turn here - Iain Grandage's music drives the show emotionally, Stephen Curtis' open space reveals surprsing ranges of creativity as it changes from bare land to the titular river (and is wonderfully capable of being slippery when required, while also being steady-under-the-feet for the rest of the show).
In the performances, there's some brilliant use of language, accent and design in letting us into the characters world. The Dharug speak in their own language throughout, with the audience to interpret their meanings through gesture and intonation only - but the white characters are just as distanced, both through performing in English accents (it's a mark of how thoroughly Belvoir's approach of "actors accents only" has sunk in with me that it took me a minute or two to adjust to the performer's use of english accents) and through white makeup on the white characters - it's not a blatant alienation effect, but it's enough to be noticeable and to present a slight stylisation. Similarly, the Dharug's outfits are not historically accurate either - there's a blending towards modern clothing in the design that makes it harder to treat them as "the other". The two characters who veer closest to "modernity" are Ursula Yovich's narrator and Colin Moody's Blackwood, who stand as a case where black and white are living together without fear or conflict.
Performances across the board are excellent - from familiar veterans like Yovich, Moody, Trevor Jamieson, Jeremy Sims, Bruce Spence and Judith McGrath, to the young performers like Callum McManis, James Slee, Bailey Doomadgee, and, in shared roles, Bailey Doomadgee and Kamil Ellis as Garraway/Dulla Djin's child and Rory Potter and Tom Usher as Dick Thornhill. It's very few productions that would be confident enough in its child actors to have them perform at the start of Act two as the audience came in, and ... this show was that confident, and fulfilled that confidence spectacularly.
I haven't said anything about the work of writer Andrew Bovell and Neil Armfield, except the obvious, which is to say that it sits under and makes everything that I've praised above possible. Armfield's professional career goes back almost 35 years at this point, and this is a perfect blending of his mastery of stagecraft, his deep engagement with performance and his constantly surprising vision. Bovell is one of Australia's great writers and his adaptation works to distill a complex novel into a clear, illuminating, direct and powerful show.