The stage at the Olivier Theatre is famously the size of a continent and today it is dressed as one too. Not a Small Island this time but the world’s largest. Australia is conjured by the arching branches of bluish eucalyptus leaves, by a towering crag of warm red sandstone, by the people mimicking the songs and calls of birds across this landscape as the play begins. Ok, not quite as it begins. Just before then the director walks on to address the audience… well, directly. This is an emotional and sincere tribute to a woman who should have been here today.
The recent sudden death in Edinburgh of the great NINGALI LAWFORD-WOLF has had a palpably deep effect on everybody in Sydney Theatre Company and a great many people beyond it. Artist, activist, actor, she was what drew me to this play more than any other factor. The production’s run at the National carries on with the blessing of her family and through the presence of PAULINE WHYMAN who now plays Ningali’s character of Dhirrumbin. The applause at the curtain call surges in appreciation of Pauline Whyman and it is fully deserved. Hers is an outstanding performance, all the more so for having been achieved at such short notice. And in such heartbreaking circumstances.
Dhirrumbin is the name of the Darug people for the ancient river now known to white Australians as the Hawkesbury. The play is set on its banks and Whyman’s character is part narrator, part living embodiment of the river. Not in any religious or mystical way. The approach is far more practical than that, reflecting how practical the belief systems tended to be that flourished for thirty millennia on that great southern continent. Before the Europeans brought violence, poison and a class system.
MARK HOWETT deserves the awards he has won for this play’s lighting. The gorgeous living warmth of that enduring rock fades to a lifeless ashen grey from the moment the colonising invaders take to the stage. The fact that we never see it recover is so powerful. IAIN GRANDAGE’s atmospheric music is excellent too. A lament sung by the Durga people is shattering in its sound and feeling, as well as in its metafictional resonances. Deep strings and ominous piano sounds are played almost like threats. ISAAC HAYWARD is included in the cast list with good reason, giving much more than a musician’s performance here. There are many impressive performances among the actors too. Somehow none of this is enough to elevate the experience of watching The Secret River above an infuriating one.
Colonisation is infection, disruption, erasure and bloody murder. Maybe never more so than in Australia’s case because that continent was so remote and unique. Here was a prehistoric ecosystem that survived in isolation, home to extraordinary animal and plant life as well as to an advanced human population. They lived in finely balanced harmony with the land and sea. Their societies and civilisation were beyond the comprehension of those who came later to exploit in the name of some empire. This did not happen in the far-off time of the Tudors as it did for other continents. The British ‘claimed’ Western Australia in the age of photography and the railway. Half a million years of history came to a violent end as recently as that.
I give this patronising capsule history lesson because The Secret River acknowledges the effects of invading a continent and wrecking it. But this is not the story being told. When a family of transported white Londoners -the Thornhills- decide to claim land beside the river as their own, the people who have always lived and farmed there are not consulted. Tensions grow and white supremacism pervades, culminating in a violent atrocity. It is one of countless identical atrocities. But this is not really the story being told either.
Such is the prism of whiteness through which the play is presented that the audience is asked to see the hardship of the Thornhills and the eventual regret they feel at their part in the atrocity as the real tragedy here. The crassness, for want of a stronger word, is astonishing.
Now there is dramatic potential in the predicament of a family like the Thornhills. Their life of great poverty in Georgian London has seen them fall into petty crime. Their disproportionate punishment is to be sent to the other side of the planet. Unwilling colonists. The pardon they eventually receive does not include passage back to Britain. Somehow they must find a way to make that money themselves. Yes, a promising story of injustice and struggle. It could work very well confined to the relative bustle of a young Sydney and nobody would be surprised that wider considerations of colonialism went unaddressed.
But The Secret River actively places itself on the frontier between indigenous peoples and invaders. It goes out of its way to poke that hornets’ nest and then wails about the fact that somebody got stung. There are moments of hesitant, implied pleading along the lines of ‘aren’t we all the same really?’ and ‘why can’t we all get along?’ which are hollow and wholly inappropriate. These tend to come from white women in moments of stress and from children. That idealised Peter, Paul and Mary view of children as innocents who have not yet learned the ways of adults. Everything about it pushes the audience towards identifying with the Europeans and seeing the Durga as other.
Who is this play for? Always a pertinent question, and part of the answer is clearly Not Me. Why did I suppose it might be? Look at the NT’s poster image, reproduced at the head of this review. The theatre’s publicity describes the play as “A deeply moving and unflinching journey into Australia’s dark history“ [the play is one sustained flinch] and promises that “This multi-award-winning production from Sydney Theatre Company tells the story of two families divided by culture and land.“ No. Only one of those families’ story is told here. That of the white European family. The Durga family appears only to have a story in relation to them.
Two golden rules for professional reviewers are: ‘Review what you see, not what you hoped to see’ and ‘Never review the audience’ I have the luxury of not being a professional and I feel justified in breaking both rules here. The first because publicity sold me a ticket for a story I did not see on the stage. The second rule I break because I am in a position to do so and because conversations need to be had. I have written about Inappropriate White Laughter before. It happens a lot. I have rarely experienced it to quite the extent that I do here. Racial slurs, racial shaming, even racial violence all provoke waves of hearty laughs. What is this? What play did this audience think it was coming to see? Did it get what it came for? Several times it takes real strength for me not to leave my aisle seat and walk out.
Only audiences themselves can fix this. But how? Those who behave in this way are unaware that the phenomenon even exists, still less that they themselves are responsible. People like me who can write about it are never going to be read by the theatregoers who need to read and learn. Reviews in The Times and other publications are never going to raise the subject. To do so would break a golden rule. How can the problem best be discussed and made visible? I wish I knew the answer to that. This production of The Secret River is not responsible for how its white audiences behave. I do not know if it is a faithful adaptation of the original novel but this strikes me as a flawed, insensitive way of framing any story about the early years of Europe’s desecration of Australia. Sometimes, however good, the medium cannot transcend the message. So I found it to be here, and the message was abhorrent to begin with.
Adapted for the Stage by: Andrew Bovell
From the Novel by: Kate Grenville
Directed by: Neil Armfield
Georgia Adamson (Sal Thornhill)
Joshua Brennan (Dan Oldfield)
Toby Challenor (Dick Thornhill)
Shaka Cook (Ngalamalum)
Marcus Corowa (Wangarra/Branyimala)
Nathaniel Dean (William Thornhill)
Isaac Hayward (Musician)
Melissa Jaffer (Mrs Herring)
Elma Kris (Buriya/Dulla Djin)
Dylan Miller (Narabi)
Colin Moody (Thomas Blackwood)
Wesley Patten (Garraway/Dulla Djin’s Child)
Rory Potter (Willie Thornhill)
Jeremy Sims (Smasher Sullivan)
Bruce Spence (Loveday)
Major ‘Moogy’ Sumner AM (Yalamundi)
Matthew Sunderland (Sagitty Birtles/Suckling /Turnkey)
Pauline Whyman (Dhirrumbin)
Dubs Yunupingu (Gilyagan/Muruli)