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.