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The Secret River @ National Theatre (Play Review) The Secret River @ National Theatre (Play Review)
The Secret River @ National Theatre (Play Review)

When the British started to colonise Australia in 1788 it’s estimated that the indigenous population could have been up to three-quarters of a million. By the 1930s however, this had shrunk to around 50,000. This dramatic reduction is widely agreed to have been caused by deliberate policies of the extermination, smallpox and other diseases to which they had no defence.


This ‘hidden holocaust’ of which Australia avoids talking about for a variety of reasons to the present day is what the play, based on Kate Grenville’s epic and the often poetic novel is what this comprehensive production seeks to expose.


Through narration and using the river Hawkesbury (Dhirrumbin, by its native name) on which the story is based as the ‘eyes’, it recounts the historical events that would have resulted from the contacts between the earliest transported Europeans and the First Nation people in the late 1700s as they first encountered each here and along the coastline of this vast continent.


The story is told mainly through the voice of William Thornhill, a convict was destined to hang for a petty crime in England but is reprieved to be transportation like many others at the time to the penal colony of New South Wales and other parts of Australia.


He falls in love with a patch of land near the river and dreams of building his family a more prosperous future in their 100 acres of ‘home’, through a combination of farming of which he knows nothing currently about and his river ferrying experience.


He is like many other European settlers around him, fully aware that they are encroaching on land occupied by the local indigenous Dharug people or ‘savages’ as he justifies himself in calling them.


As the play unfolds we see how his family and the nearest Dhurag interact. First with suspicion which them moves to cautious respect initiated tellingly through his younger son as yet like most youngsters have not yet developed racist and prejudiced attitudes. We come to understand that despite their contrasting appearances both are the same, concerned and fending for their families and children in the best way they can.


However, a series of bloody encounters result in the settlers taking up arms and slaughtering the local population in cold blood. This pattern of minor attack by the Aborigines and unjustified overwhelming forceful genocidal retaliation is repeated throughout the colonies, resulting along with other factors in the near extinction of the indigenes.


Nathaniel Dean gives an accomplished performance as William Thornhill, an ordinary man torn by moral dilemma he finds himself. Conflicted by his aspirations and the violence and cruelty he knows he must inflict to achieve it.


Georgina Adamson is spirited as his plucky cockney wife, who constantly dreams of returning the harsh but homely streets of London. Also noteworthy is Elma Kris as Buryia, the head of the Dharug family who provides most of the comedic moments in this otherwise intense and emotional play. Special posthumous mention to Ningali Lawford-Wolf who passed away shortly before the opening of the National Theatre production, she had played the narrator Dhirrumbin).


The set design by Stephen Curtis is imaginative, with a huge backdrop evoking the rugged inhospitable mountain ranges would have encountered.


Director Neil Armfield by centering the around an open fire cleverly draws our attention to the similarities between the two families but also the huge gulf since one is actively plotting the total destruction of the other.


Despite being an adaption of a book, the production could have included the thoughts and emotions and suffering of the indigenous people, rather than they just been mere ‘props’ to give what was a very romanticised version of the settlers’ story.


This was a wasted opportunity, as the production failed to give any insight into the deep-seated effect colonisation must have had on those conquered. At over two and half hours, there was plenty of opportunity to do so.


But as the old African proverb says ‘Until the lion have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’.


The Secret River, Till Sept 7 , National Theatre, SE1 9PX Tickets and details https://ebonyonline.net/event/the-secret-river/

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