In <i>The Secret River</i>: Anita Hegh, Rory Potter, Lachlan Elliott and Nathaniel Dean.

In The Secret River: Anita Hegh, Rory Potter, Lachlan Elliott and Nathaniel Dean. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

The Secret River
The Playhouse until February 17. Reviewer: Glenn Burns

The history of stage adaptations of novels is not a consistently happy one. However, Neil Armfield, as director, and Andrew Bovell, as writer, have given Kate Grenville's award winning novel of colonial Australia, The Secret River, a powerful theatrical treatment while preserving its story of an appalling moral challenge.

Armfield chooses a non-realistic, highly theatrical method of conveying Grenville's story. He uses an onstage narrator (Ursula Yovich), mime, Iain Grandage's onstage music, props that look like padded toys and make-up that would not be out of place in the circus. But the effect is not one of Brechtian alienation because it is not possible to feel detached from these characters' lives, their struggles and the moral dilemmas they are forced into.

The chief character is ex-convict William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) whose quest for a better life places him in a vast, untamed landscape with rough and ready neighbours and the presence of an indigenous people who he does not understand.

After a life of poverty and prison, Thornhill thinks that one hundred acres on the Hawkesbury River and hard work will provide him and his family with a new and independent existence. The realities prove much more complex.

This production does an especially fine job of dramatising the barriers between the white settlers and the Aboriginal occupiers of the land.

Each side's customs and possessions continue to bewilder the other.

The Aboriginal language spoken in the first confrontation forces the audience to share Thornhill's complete lack of comprehension.

A simply set stage hints at the vastness of the land on which this clash of cultures and dispute over land takes place.

A massively tall, curtained backdrop represents the giant gums of the area, while Mark Howett's lighting design allows for a brilliant interplay of the glare of the Australian sun with these gums, and the smoke from a fire that flickers constantly throughout the performance.

A big cast play is too much of a rarity in contemporary theatre and it is to be appreciated here where the quality of the performances is so high.

It is worth mentioning, in particular, the excellent young performers whose characters' innocent playfulness suggests that without preconceptions and without possessions, there is no racial tension.

The stage version of The Secret River is a theatrically dynamic retelling of a big and morally challenging story.

Like Grenville's novel, it leaves one with the disturbing thought that the character with some conscience is the one capable of genuine moral atrocity.