Review - The Secret River at the National Theatre

The Secret River
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Wednesday, 28 August, 2019
Review by: 

While William Thornhill, the pardoned prisoner who lays claim to his own land in Australia, is the fictional antihero of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, it’s hard to forget to Indigenous people he’s displaced by laying claim to his space are real. Blameless, slaughtered, and real.  

After its debut in Australia in 2013, Andrew Bovell’s adaptation comes to London following a run at Edinburgh International Festival, where actor Ningali Lawford-Wolf, the play’s narrator, tragically passed away during the run. With Pauline Whyman brilliantly stepping in, the whole cast shows exemplary courage and professionalism during this run at the National, which is dedicated to Lawford-Wolf’s memory.

In a statement on Sydney Theatre Company’s website, they say the actor ‘spent her life building bridges of friendship and love between Indigenous and mainstream Australia’. This play feels like a major beam in that bridge, bringing together actors from numerous clans and contemporary Australia together to tell this extremely well-balanced play.

Will Thornhill is pardoned from his sentence in Australia, but is convinced by his vision for a better, prosperous life full of opportunity by the Hawkesbury River. Convincing his Cockney wife to build a life there for just five years, he claims a modest 100-acre space, among other British settlers who have each, in their own way, adapted to life among the native Dharug people. Whether that’s Smasher Sullivan antagonistic approach, or Thomas Blackwell’s marriage to a native woman, they’ve found a way.

What this play centres on is which way will Will lean: does he move on to a more acceptable piece of land like his compatriots, or is he going to stand his ground and antagonise the locals into submission?

Throughout Neil Armfield’s tender and devastating play, we’re tugged in all directions. The utter joy of seeing Will’s youngest son playing in the mud with the Darug children, to the tension of the father’s first meeting with one of the town’s elders Yalamundi. The authenticity of this production, in that it is performed both in English and Dharug, is both insightful and disarming.

Soundtracked to Iain Grandage’s atmospheric score, masterfully performed by Isaac Hayward who recites either solo at his piano and cello, or collaborating with the actors to form a folk supergroup, Armfield’s direction is unrelenting and raw. There are no flashy tricks, but smart use of the vast stage and a very basic set proves to be engaging storytelling.

As the complex Thornhill, William Thornhill gives an impassioned performance as a man dead-set on claiming his stake to his own piece of dirt – something unimaginable back in his London hometown. As madman Smasher Sullivan, you can see the hinges coming loose Jeremy Sims’ performance, which adds a touch of danger to play. And stepping in as the narrator – having flown to Edinburgh from Melbourne last week – credit must go to Pauline Whyman who has stepped in at the 11th hour to read the role of the narrator pensively.

This is an all-encompassing play that has you laughing one minute and on the verge of tears the next. A devastating eye-opener as to the gritty truth of modern Australia’s history, presented with great sensitivity and craft.  

The Secret River is at the National Theatre until 7th September.

Photo credit Ryan Buchanan

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