The Secret River – Theatre Review

The Secret River is a show with tragedy at its heart. It can be felt in every moment; whether waiting for its impending arrival, watching it inevitably unfold, or seeing it in the eyes of the cast as they receive a much deserved standing ovation. Prior to its run at the National Theatre The Secret River was showing at the Edinburgh Fringe when the play’s co-creator and narrator Ningali Lawford Wolf sadly passed away. With less than a week’s preparation Pauline Whyman has stepped into the breach and shoulders the burden with mastery and nobility; providing the play with a stable core around which events can unfold.

William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) is a newly free English convict living in New South Wales with his wife Sal (Georgia Adamson) and their two boys. With William now free to return to London Sal dreams of saving up money and returning back to the places she sings about in nursery rhymes. William however has an alternative plan. Down in the new world he has the chance of a fresh start and sets his sights on a 100 acre plot on which to build a farm and a future for his family.

As the Thornhill’s settle into their new homestead they discover that they are not the first to claim the land for their own as the Dharug people make their presence known. While the Indigenous Australians and their new interlopers do not share a language the two groups slowly find a way to communicate. Tentative friendships are formed and hopes raised but ultimately both lay claim to the same plot of land and the dream of peaceful coexistence slowly, brutally, unravels.

The Olivier stage is a vast space that past productions have often struggled to fill. Where The Secret River succeeds is in not try to overcompensate and fill the space with clutter and clever scenery. Instead the stage is kept mostly bare and the intimate story of families, heritage, and home is allowed to shine. With no unnecessary distractions the audience is able to give the story their full attention; on a broad canvas the eye is always drawn to where it needs to be.

The Secret River is blessed with a strong ensemble cast all delivering masterclass performances in love, rage, fear, sorrow, joy, and everything in between. Their worn and torn costumes hint at the struggles they have been through and beautiful live music from Iain Grandage underpins a perfect show. Excuse me as I try to praise every aspect of The Secret River but sometime a show deserves a little gushing.

The story of a The Secret River is a tragedy treated with the greatest respect. Grisly moments are portrayed with grace that doesn’t undermine the real horror of the history but steers clear of glorifying the gore. The weight of any blood spilt is felt with a heavy heart and a deep aching regret. I haven’t seen anything this affecting in a long time.

Directed by Neil Armfield, based on the novel by Kate Grenville and adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell, The Secret River runs at the National Theatre until 7th September 2019 and tickets are still available online.

Ode to the Goose – LKFF 2019 Teaser Screening

If it’s time for this blog to wake from its summer hibernation it can only mean that festival season will soon be upon us. Ahead of the London Korean Film Festival kicking off in November they held a teaser screening of Zhang Lü’s Ode to the Goose earlier this week and I dutifully tagged along for a dose of Korean cinema and in the hope of a glimpse of LKFF stalwart Tony Rayns.

The viewer arrives late to Ode to the Goose as the film starts where traditionally the second act would be found. So begins two hours of subtle humour, careful character-driven plotting, and a frisky approach to structure that always left me one step behind. With a pace closer to Hong Sang-soo than Park Chan-wook, and a film that shows its title card after more than an hour has passed, Lü demands your patience and attention.

In the coastal town of Gunsan Yoon-young (Park Hae-il) has taken Song-hyun (Moon So-ri) away for a trip of ambiguous intent. Looking for a place to spend the night they are directed towards a guesthouse that requires “luck” to gain admittance. Luck must be on their side as they are allowed to stay; the guesthouse’s only residents beside the nameless innkeeper (Jung Jin-young) and his recluse autistic daughter (Park So-dam).

With little to do to fill their time Yoon-young and Song-hyun struggle to define their relationship, either for themselves or the audience, all the while tentatively taking romantic steps towards to the pair of introverts who are their hosts. As events unfold plenty of soju and makgeolli, lines are crossed, and timelines become confused.

With Ode to the Goose Zhang Lü has created a puzzle box of a film; one that requires dexterity and concentration to solve. This doesn’t make the film a chore to watch however, far from it. Lü is playful enough to make the film both ambitious in structure and good fun to watch. While he plays with themes of memory, identity, and relationships he utilises the charms of his leading duo keep everything grounded, relatable, and enjoyable.

Consider my interest in this year’s London Korean Film Festival successfully piqued.

The programme for this year’s festival will be launched on September 16th at Regent Street Cinema alongside a screening of Kokdu: A Story of Guardian Angels. Tickets are available for just £7 so we have no excuse not to go.