THEATRE

Frank Barnes

The Secret River

By Kate Grenville
An adaptation for the stage by Andrew Bovell
Directed by Neil Armfield
Sydney Theatre
Sydney Theatre Company

One of the country’s most loved novels, The Secret River has had a large exposure over recent years with the Sydney Theatre production in 2013 and with the ABC series last year. While the series had mixed reactions, most reaction to the play has rightly been ecstatic. I loved it in 2013, even more when I saw this production.

The production team is inspired, with director Armfield collaborating with designer Stephen Curtis who created a circular playing area backed by what looks like a giant gum tree.

Costume designer Tess Schofield has used modern ideas to create the period and white face paint to help place the characters in their “tribes”. Lighting designer Mark Howett makes it easy to always know where we are and to direct our eyes to what we need to see while Iain Grandage has composed a score that is integrated perfectly into the show and is a major part of the production, performed here on stage (at the front) by Isaac Hayward. Stephen Page, artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, is credited as artistic associate and must have been crucial as a cultural adviser.

The sensitivity of the cultural divisions the play presents has been handled brilliantly. The director notes that there was a lot of discussion as to whether the Dharug language used by the Aboriginal characters should have been subtitled. I am glad the decision was to not do so: it puts us, the audience, in the same position as the Thornhill family and the other Europeans of not having a clue to what is being said.

The play starts with the Thornhill family beginning its journey up the Hawkesbury River to claim land to farm. The boat is represented by a rope and the action never leaves us in any doubt as to what the rope shows us.

There are many moments in the production where simple stage tropes are used to represent images and actions. The strongest of these is towards the end when the white settlers use white powder blown from their mouths to represent gunshots as they move aggressively from the back of the stage to the front. It is a very powerful and scary moment. There are many moments such as these in this production.

As the play heads to its inevitable conclusion we get to see how both the Thornhills and other settlers live their lives in similar fashions to the First Peoples. This is the real strength of the play.

Naturally it is the women and children, particularly the children, who cannot understand why there might be a problem. The opening of Act 2 sees the young kids playing together without any of the hang-ups of the adults, and there is a moment when Mrs Thornhill sees the Aboriginal vamp for the first time and observes they “are just the same as us”.

I could write for ages about how good this show is but I will give the last word to Kate Grenville, who answers the question of “Is it as good as the book?”. In the program notes she writes, “When I saw performances of the earlier season, I was overwhelmed with admiration for what the team behind the production play had achieved. The play is far more than an adaptation — it’s an astonishing feat of creative re-imagining. Without losing anything of the meaning of the original, the play adds dimensions a novel can only gesture towards. The collaboration with Aboriginal creative artists takes the story into a new realm of emotional power and honesty. I feel honoured that the book has been the starting point for such a magnificent play.”

Mention must also be made of Andrew Bovell, one of our most famous writers that no-one has ever heard of. I recently read a five-star review of his excellent When The Rain Stops Falling being presented in Madrid. He is best known for his play Speaking in Tongues, which he adapted for the award-winning film Lantana. Last year, the STC produced a spectacular production of his first play After Dinner which was one of the best and funniest shows of 2015.

It will be difficult for anything to top this show as the best for this year, early though it is. I will be seeing Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age next week. I saw the original production at Belvoir 30 years ago and remember it vividly. It is great that the STC has done these two important plays to start this year. Thank you, Andrew Upton, for this great start to your last year as Artistic Director.

One of the country’s most loved novels, The Secret River has had a large exposure over recent years with the Sydney Theatre production in 2013 and with the ABC series last year. While the series had mixed reactions, most reaction to the play has rightly been ecstatic. I loved it in 2013, even more when I saw this production.

The production team is inspired, with director Armfield collaborating with designer Stephen Curtis who created a circular playing area backed by what looks like a giant gum tree.

Costume designer Tess Schofield has used modern ideas to create the period and white face paint to help place the characters in their “tribes”. Lighting designer Mark Howett makes it easy to always know where we are and to direct our eyes to what we need to see while Iain Grandage has composed a score that is integrated perfectly into the show and is a major part of the production, performed here on stage (at the front) by Isaac Hayward. Stephen Page, artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, is credited as artistic associate and must have been crucial as a cultural adviser.

The sensitivity of the cultural divisions the play presents has been handled brilliantly. The director notes that there was a lot of discussion as to whether the Dharug language used by the Aboriginal characters should have been subtitled. I am glad the decision was to not do so: it puts us, the audience, in the same position as the Thornhill family and the other Europeans of not having a clue to what is being said.

The play starts with the Thornhill family beginning its journey up the Hawkesbury River to claim land to farm. The boat is represented by a rope and the action never leaves us in any doubt as to what the rope shows us.

There are many moments in the production where simple stage tropes are used to represent images and actions. The strongest of these is towards the end when the white settlers use white powder blown from their mouths to represent gunshots as they move aggressively from the back of the stage to the front. It is a very powerful and scary moment. There are many moments such as these in this production.

As the play heads to its inevitable conclusion we get to see how both the Thornhills and other settlers live their lives in similar fashions to the First Peoples. This is the real strength of the play.

Naturally it is the women and children, particularly the children, who cannot understand why there might be a problem. The opening of Act 2 sees the young kids playing together without any of the hang-ups of the adults, and there is a moment when Mrs Thornhill sees the Aboriginal vamp for the first time and observes they “are just the same as us”.

I could write for ages about how good this show is but I will give the last word to Kate Grenville, who answers the question of “Is it as good as the book?”. In the program notes she writes, “When I saw performances of the earlier season, I was overwhelmed with admiration for what the team behind the production play had achieved. The play is far more than an adaptation — it’s an astonishing feat of creative re-imagining. Without losing anything of the meaning of the original, the play adds dimensions a novel can only gesture towards. The collaboration with Aboriginal creative artists takes the story into a new realm of emotional power and honesty. I feel honoured that the book has been the starting point for such a magnificent play.”

Mention must also be made of Andrew Bovell, one of our most famous writers that no-one has ever heard of. I recently read a five-star review of his excellent When The Rain Stops Falling being presented in Madrid. He is best known for his play Speaking in Tongues, which he adapted for the award-winning film Lantana. Last year, the STC produced a spectacular production of his first play After Dinner which was one of the best and funniest shows of 2015.

It will be difficult for anything to top this show as the best for this year, early though it is. I will be seeing Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age next week. I saw the original production at Belvoir 30 years ago and remember it vividly. It is great that the STC has done these two important plays to start this year. Thank you, Andrew Upton, for this great start to your last year as Artistic Director.

The Tribe

Belvoir Theatre has also had a very strong start to its season. For The Tribe we ventured into a backyard to hear Hazem Shammas, accompanied on the cello by Oonagh Sherrard, telling stories from the book by Michael Mohammed Ahmad adapted from his novel. He tells stories of a young Lebanese boy and his observations of his family. It was a novel and moving experience.

Jasper Jones

Charles Wu and Tom Conroy in Jasper Jones
Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Belvoir’s other play Jasper Jones, adapted by Kate Mulvany from the novel by Craig Silvey, was a complete surprise as I had never heard of it (there is now a film due for release later this year). I know many readers are very familiar with it but for me it was a great experience, full of surprises as the story kept taking off in different directions.

A word or two

Since last writing I have seen eight shows, so a word or two about each. King Lear at STC and Mortido at Belvoir were great productions. Violet at The Hayes continued a run of excellent musicals and introduced us to the directing skills of Mitchell Butel. At the Old Fitz Theatre we had Ben Gerrard turn in a top performance in I Am My Own Wife directed superbly by Shaun Rennie. Blanc de Blanc at the Opera House was, however, a bad start to the year. This is in the style of the cabaret/burlesque/circus shows but seemed to be simply an excuse to get the audience drunk on champers.

A recent trip to Melbourne delivered with the excellent Trevor Ashley doing Minnelli to perfection in Liza’s Back (is broken). While writer Carolyn Burns and Director Simon Phillips had a great hit with their stage adaptation of the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest which was very good but not as good as The 39 Steps they were less successful with the musical Ladies in Black at the Melbourne Theatre Company; the audience loved the show but I thought it was very light on. Anthony Warlow plays Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. It is one of my favourite musicals but I wasn’t impressed with Warlow this time. The rest of the cast showed our great depth of triple threat performers — those who can sing, act and dance.

Frank Barnes went to Melbourne for the tennis but enjoyed the theatre also. He hopes you all have a great year of theatregoing.