The Secret River, by Kate Grenville, is one of those stories that really hits your inner core. To most Australians, it’s a familiar tale- of white land possession in the colonial period of Australia and how these events has negative effects and consequences for both the Indigenous custodians and white settlers. The story follows a newly freed convict family who take some ‘vacant’ Australian bush and the hardships which follow a people flung into an alien land. Their experience is then paralleled to the Indigenous peoples on whose land they annexed- a very familiar story to all Australians who know of the Indigenous experience. In fact, some people may be put off by this text; for fear that it will be a broken record on Indigenous oppression and suffering. While The Secret River does contain these elements and this underlying message, the story is not at all a guilt trip. As with any Kate Grenville text, the craftsmanship is in the storytelling and the beautiful weaving of the narrative blanket. The text itself has won numerous prestigious awards, the Commonwealth Prize for Literature, and the NSW Premier’s Prize, to name a couple. It was shortlisted for Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize. Grenville has captured an age-old story and resurrected it with her beautiful words and made it relevant to a current society.
This year, until the 9th of February, the Sydney Theatre Company presents a stage adaptation of Grenville’s The Secret River. In terms of production elements, the performance is beautiful, even magical. By recreating the iconic location, (the Hawkesbury River,) on stage, they transport us back to a land before our known time and they achieve so using only a communal campfire, simple mis en scene and eucalyptus branches. By employing self-conscious theatre techniques, the audience is alerted to the construction of the play and therefore the relevance of the social justice commentary; for example, sounds of the water trickling are made by a small boy down stage right, and the orchestra sits on the stage. These act as a subtle reminder to us that we are not to be immersed in the theatrics or the tale itself, but to remember the themes and message that this play acts as a vehicle for. The lighting and subtle uses of computer projections are excellent and stand as a testament to the absolute professional quality of the Sydney Theatre Company’s stage team. The directing was exceptional, tying up loose ends and detailing the play to the enth degree and the acting was so powerful, so intense. This production is not to be missed, even though we know the story, even though with hindsight we know the ending will be tragic. What we do not know is just how crafty Grenville’s storytelling is and how perfect and simple a Sydney Theatre Company production can be.
For more information, visit: http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/what’s-on/productions/2013/the-secret-river.aspx