Soon after her novel was released in 2005, controversy swirled around Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, based on a pioneer ancestor who had profited from dispossessing the local Aboriginal tribe. But the debate about the troubling task of fictionalising history did not deter readers. The book was reprinted ten times in two years, sold well over 100,000 copies in Australia alone, won prize after prize and was translated into 20 languages.
It would seem the story has retained its power. Commissioned by Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett for the Sydney Theatre Company, the stage play has just had sell-out seasons in Sydney, Canberra and Perth. Andrew Bovell’s brilliant adaptation meant excising the novel’s first two sections, set in London and Sydney, leaving the story set on the banks of the Hawkesbury River over a seven-month period in 1813–14. The focus is a 40-hectare patch of cleared land where William Thornhill has chosen to start farming with his wife, Sal, and their two boys.
The play begins with an Aboriginal family sitting around a fire, speaking in the local Dharug language. There are no subtitles; in this way director Neil Armfield and his associate, choreographer Stephen Page, draw us directly into the fraughtness of the actual historical situation.
Full understanding is provided by the six settlers who come and go on stage, and particularly by the Thornhills, who build their hut and plant their corn on the Dharug’s yam ground. In conversation with his son, Thornhill observes:
A tent is all very well, lad, but what marks a man’s claim is a square of dug-over dirt and something growing that had not been there before. This way, by the time the corn is sticking up out of the ground any bugger passing in a boat will know this patch is taken. Good as raising a flag.
Bovell’s dialogue allows us to understand the settlers’ lust for land. They had been cast out from a society where they could never have attained the status that land ownership confers. Common humanity is emphasised by having the two families serially share the same campfire. The younger of the Thornhill boys plays happily with his Dharug counterparts. Several of the settlers achieve a sort of accommodation. Thomas Blackwood has taken a Dharug wife, albeit to the disgust of his fellows.
But the tension inherent in the situation, skilfully controlled by Armfield, eventually engulfs everyone. Thornhill finally joins the men of blood, personified by the egregious Smasher Sullivan. Perhaps a more peaceful outcome was never possible. The die was cast even before Thornhill was transported, when the British government declared New South Wales terra nullius to justify the endless expropriation.
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