Review: The Secret River at the King's Theatre

It starts with the indigenous people. They gather round the campfire flames, speak their language without translation and stop to hear a sad lament. This, fans of Kate Grenville will note, is not the way her mesmerising novel begins. And quite rightly, in this stage adaptation by Andrew Bovell, that it should not.

No sensitive dramatisation of her story of a British convict’s arrival in Australia in the early 19th century, claiming a patch of land as his own, would underplay the presence of those who inhabited the country first. This consummate staging by Neil Armfield for Sydney Theatre Company never lets you forget there are two sides to every story of colonisation.

For theatrical focus, Bovell’s version hacks deep into the novel. Gone are the coming-of-age tales of London poverty and criminality. Gone too is the arduous journey across the oceans and the early settling in Sydney of the Thornhill family. Instead, we cut straight to their arrival on 100 acres of uncultivated land, the first time these impoverished people have owned anything – except, of course, ownership is a contested concept when there are people who have wandered this land for generations.

In this way, the stage itself becomes the site of a territorial battle. Although the focus is on a story of survival against the odds, as the Thornhills learn to sow seeds, make shelter and fend off illness, there is always the looming presence of those who were there first. We might not understand their language, but their confrontations, overtures and songs leave us in no doubt they have their own story to tell.

Georgia Adamson as Sal Thornhill and Nathaniel Dean as husband William are excellent, capturing the combination of rugged resilience and warm sexuality that make them such compelling central figures. But this is an ensemble production, performed on a set by Stephen Curtis of bleached earth and rock, and accompanied throughout by a ravishing live score by Iain Grandage, and it takes the whole company to create such a tremendous sense of life, even as they leave you with the bitter taste of loss.

The Secret River, King’s Theatre, 2-11 Aug, 7.30pm

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