Andrew Bovell has adapted <i>The Secret River</i> for the stage.

Andrew Bovell has adapted The Secret River for the stage. Photo: Supplied

It was a confronting and dramatic story which Cate Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton identified as one they would like adapted as a play upon first becoming directors of the Sydney Theatre Company. Both were fans of Kate Grenville’s Man Booker Prize-nominated novel, The Secret River, and planted the seed that would evolve into an impressive production that is set to wow Canberra audiences in February.

Discussions and planning ensued and a decision was made that this fascinating story, which places a microscopic lens on Australia’s early history, would be transferred from the pages and into a stage production.

As a person with a distinguished playwriting career, whose impressive feats include writing the original screenplay of the 1992 smash hit Strictly Ballroom, Andrew Bovell was the person commissioned with the job of adapting The Secret River novel into a play.

“It’s a huge challenge every time you turn a novel into another medium,” he said.

“Everything has to be revealed through action and you have to find a different language in which to tell the story – you have to find a way to make it a theatrical event.”

The Secret River dramatises the story of two families divided by culture and land. When convict William Thornhill is exiled from 19th century London, he crosses the globe to NSW and discovers a penal colony that can offer him a place of his own, on a stretch of the Hawkesbury River. As he and his family begin to establish themselves, they discover they are not alone – the Hawkesbury River is also home to a family of Dharug people who are reluctant to leave. Thornhill’s desire and attachment for this treasured land then leads him to make an unspeakable decision.

Bovell’s adaptation focuses intently on the section of Grenville’s book which is centred around the Hawkesbury River. The meeting between black and white is heavily emphasised, with the end result producing many dramatic and eye-opening scenes for audiences.

“The part of our history that Kate Grenville talks about in the book is a very important part of Australian history,” he said.

“It’s a beautiful and tragic story. I think it will be a wonderful event and a very honest look at our history. It also tells the story of how essentially a good person can get caught up in something evil.”

Bovell is enthusiastic about seeing the production hit the stage, as he waxes lyrical about the scale of the performance, as well as the dedicated and talented cast which is set to bring the production to life.

“Everyone involved in the production recognises that this is one of our great national stories and they all see the Australian stage as a place that needs to tell those important stories,” he said.

“It brings together a very talented ensemble of both indigenous and white Australian actors and tries to tell the history from both the indigenous and the white point of view.”

As Canberra celebrates its centenary in 2013 and reflections are made on the establishment and development of the city, The Secret River is set to provide a perfect synchronicity with the event as it plays out some of the oldest history of Australia, albeit from a period of time that long pre-dates the establishment of Canberra.

“The centenary celebration is a great context in which to tell this story,” Bovell said.

“It’s a really big show, a cast of 18 – you don’t really get Australian stories told on this scale. This is a really great opportunity for people to see a big, important theatre.”

The Secret River will be playing at the Canberra Theatre Centre from February 14-17. For more information, visit canberratheatrecentre.com.au