A new stage ... author Kate Grenville feels her controversial novel is in safe hands with Neil Armfield as the production's director. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
For a director about to bring one of Australia's more contentious novels to the stage, Neil Armfield has a surprisingly down-to-earth approach to the theatre. The former artistic director of the Belvoir St Theatre says directing a play is no more difficult than telling a story in a pub.
''If you're telling a story in a pub - you know, a glass of beer, a salt and pepper shaker, a coaster and a bowl of peanuts - with those little props you can tell a story,'' he says.
''If the story is good and your skills are right, you can make a salt shaker represent anything. It's about the way you focus your audience's attention.''
As part of the Sydney Festival, the 57-year-old is bringing his skills to a stage adaptation of Kate Grenville's 2005 novel The Secret River.
Grenville's story of the English convict William Thornhill's conflict with Aboriginal people on the banks of the Hawkesbury River in the early 19th century was inspired by research into her ancestor Solomon Wiseman.
The novel sold many thousands of copies, won literary awards, was shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize and provoked fierce debate about the history of white Australia's interaction with the indigenous population.
Armfield sees Grenville's book as part of an artistic outpouring across literature, visual art and theatre in the 1990s, prompted by a series of events including then prime minister Paul Keating's Redfern speech and the High Court's Mabo and Wik decisions recognising indigenous land rights.
''It was suddenly like the lie that had been at the heart of Australian history for 200 years was being revealed,'' he says.
To Armfield, adapting a novel requires an approach to storytelling the audience can understand, ''which can be both simple and thrilling in its theatricality''.
The task was further complicated by the departure of Jack Charles from the cast last month after the indigenous actor had his Aboriginality questioned by the Australia Council in a funding application.
Grenville, who has had no involvement in this Sydney Theatre Company production, says a literal-minded adaptation of The Secret River might be problematic. ''But this great creative team will take the essence of the book and re-imagine it freshly for another medium,'' she says. ''I'm so pleased it will have this other life.''
For the author, the history of the early European settlers' interaction with indigenous people is ''a violent and shameful one. For white Australians, it's easier to deny that anything shameful lurks in our past than to front up to it,'' she says.
Like Armfield, Grenville took part in the Reconciliation Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000 - an event she says made her realise how little she knew of ''what had gone on between the Aboriginal people and the settlers in the early days''.
Her novel provoked controversy among historians, some of whom disagreed with her interpretation of events.
Melbourne historian Dr Inga Clendinnen took issue with Grenville moving the time and place of certain historical events.
''The book's shape is made completely different by that kind of casual transposition. It makes the novel not only not history, but in my admittedly very austere view, anti-history,'' Clendinnen told Fairfax in 2006. ''It's a dramatic imagination unleashed on some wilfully selected historical material, used as grist to the novelist's mill.''
Clendinnen questioned Grenville's use of empathy to tell her story.
''We cannot post ourselves back in time,'' she wrote in The Quarterly Essay, The History Question: Who Owns the Past? ''People really did think differently then … How much culture do we really share with British people of 200 years ago?''
Controversial historian Keith Windschuttle questioned the depiction of frontier violence in the early days of European settlement, labelling it a ''black armband'' view of the past. But Grenville says the controversy only ever involved a small number of historians with an axe to grind and a slippery way with the facts.
''Readers were puzzled by it - they knew storytellers have been taking history as their inspiration since Homer,'' she says. ''Novels set in the past are published every day without controversy - the debate, such as it was, has well and truly moved on.''
Armfield is on Grenville's side when it comes to the past. Of the historical veracity of The Secret River, he says Grenville was attempting ''to create a truth which was not necessarily about historical details, but what I think was very appropriately the right of the novelist to create stories based on profound and deep research''.
Armfield does not view Grenville's protagonist, Thornhill, as a villain for falling in love with the beauty of the landscape and the freedom it offered.
''But he shuts his ears and his eyes to what he can see to be the truth of the civilisation that is here and working and living,'' he says. ''The book is about that moment where, out of fear, anxiety and greed, the decision was made to turn the people who own the land into victims, and from that all of our history is derived.''
Grenville has every reason to be confident in Armfield's ability to tackle difficult issues. During his 17 years at Belvoir St, he directed a number of plays dealing with Aboriginal stories, including Aliwa and Gulpilil. And he gave such classics as Medea and The Tempest an indigenous perspective.
Looking back at the history of indigenous theatre, Armfield says the angry political work of the 1970s gradually gave way to a more positive approach. ''But I think the presence of anger, the inheritance of pain, is always being addressed,'' he says.
Life after Belvoir St has been kind to Armfield, who has a number of film and theatre projects under way, and is directing Richard Wagner's four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen for Opera Australia late this year.
''It's very pleasurable,'' he says. ''I'm still finding the pleasure of it. Part of the pleasure is that my relationship with Belvoir is so happy.''
Armfield directed Summer of the Seventeenth Doll for Belvoir last year, and still enjoys watching shows at the former Nimrod Theatre building in the back streets of Surry Hills, which he helped to buy in 1984.
He does not miss the burden of running a theatre company. ''I still wake up once or twice a week surrounded by black terror,'' he says. ''But that's my own issue. I suspect that doesn't go away.''
Armfield says thinking about next season's program was an ''ever-present burden at the back of his mind'', although he always tried to shut these worries out of the rehearsal room.
But now, he says: ''I go into rehearsal without knowing that on the other side of the rehearsal door there is a monster waiting to devour me. I think my evenings are a bit lighter. People say I'm looking better since I left.''
The Secret River is at the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, from Tuesday to February 9.