12 March 2016

GUEST REVIEW: The Secret River

The Secret River
Arts Centre Melbourne presents a Sydney Theatre Company production
10 March 2015
to 19 March

Review by Byron Bache

 The Secret River. Trevor Jameison.

BB: This is the review I was commissioned to write for the Herald Sun. It's not running either in print or online. Neither the paper nor my editor censored me or my views. Once you read it, you'll see it's really not a very Herald Sun approach to reviewing mainstage theatre, so its non-publication is on me. If I'd filed it earlier, there might have been time to refashion it into something more conventional. But there wasn't, so it's here. I'm glad it's here.

For 228 years, we've been killing Indigenous Australians. We've done it with guns, knives, smallpox blankets, even our bare hands. We're still at it, but now our weapons are regulatory, systemic, silent. Institutionalised discrimination doesn't kill quite as fast as a musket, but in the end it's statistically just as efficient.

Kate Grenville's 2005 novel, The Secret River, a brilliant and deliberately myopic tale of emancipated convict William Thornhill, ends with the violent murder of an entire Dharug family group. At the culmination of an impossible land dispute, fuelled by fear and an insurmountable language barrier, these men, women and children, who Grenville never even gives names, are left dead, as the white man contemplates his own crippling ennui. It's the kind of mirror that should be held up more often; a gut-twisting reminder of the colonists' disregard for human life.

After staking his claim on a seemingly unoccupied stretch of the Hawkesbury River, Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) sets about building a life for his young family. But the land is far from unoccupied, and soon enough he's face to face with Ngalamalum (Trevor Jamieson) and the Dharug people, neither man able to communicate with the other.

In his adaptation, playwright Andrew Bovell gives the Dharug names, routines, relationships. They're people, instead of just "the other". But in striving for a certain brand of authenticity, Bovell and director Neil Armfield make the same mistake as the fictional Thornhill. What's intended as tolerance, compassion and understanding is literally lost in translation. Speaking only in un-surtitled Dharug, it's tough to shake the feeling that we're being presented with that icky narrative trope: the magical other. Armfield's production is slick, moving and beautiful, and the cast manage to telegraph plenty of what's going on, but something's off-kilter the whole way through.

When the historical note in your program does a better job of telling the story of the Dharug than your show does, you might be doing something wrong.

As the story of a white man and his family, The Secret River works. As a morality tale, a warning, a sober reflection, it works too. But inescapable in its engineering and execution is the fact that this is a white man's adaptation of a novel by a white woman, directed by a white man. The Indigenous voices ring loud and clear, but they're denied the agency, the immediacy and the basic humanity of being understood.

Bovell and Armfield's vision isn't insensitive. It's not racist. It doesn't apologise for unforgivable atrocities. It's a lesson – one we should all hear. But it's not the subversive, illuminating thing that it could be.

The ending will make you weep. The aftermath will leave you speechless. But being forced to observe the Dharug like the subjects of a nature documentary carries far less power than it might if they were given language the audience could understand. A version of this play in which the Dharug speak English, and the Thornhills speak an unintelligible dialect is one that illuminates. One that doesn't just prod at hearts and minds, but alters them. Imagine if The Secret River didn't fetishise otherness as a storytelling device. If instead of detailing how things were lost, it showed us what was lost.

As an unexamined piece of entertainment, it's a triumph. As a political act, it's a mess. And as a lesson in the inescapable common ground of humanity, it's token at best.

This is black theatre made by white people. Are we okay with that?

The Secret River

And a bit from me

SM: The Secret River is a wonderful piece of theatre. I loved it from the smell of burning gum in the theatre to hearing an audience member cry.

Every review and rave about the performances are spot on. As are the raves about Stephen Curtis's endless gum backdrop that makes us feel insignificant, Iain Grandage's live score and his interaction with the story, and Tess Schofield's not-now-not-then costumes with everyone in some form of white make up

This is theatre that lets Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists tell OUR story with empathy and understanding and the hope, and belief, that our current and  future selves really will learn from our past.

But I wasn't completely in that world; I always felt like I was watching.

At first I thought it was because I knew the story, but I cry every time I watch the last minutes of Six Feet Under or Terms of Endearment.

And it's not like the moments of gut-dropping horror, with no humanity on the stage, aren't there.

I wanted the moment of being so in another person's skin that you understand their world as they see it. The moment that makes you realise that you could be that person – or are that person. That confronting moment when a quiet part of your brain says, "Yep, I think I'd have done the same if that were my world."

Because even with all our hope and understanding, there's still far too much that hasn't changed.

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