March 02, 2017

Echoes of history in the quarry

Adelaide Festival
Echoes of history in the quarry

The Secret River
by Kate Grenville
Adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell
A Sydney Theatre Company Production
Presented by Adelaide Festival
and State Theatre Company South Australia
Anstey Hill Quarry, Adelaide
March 2. Until March 19.

The revival, for the 2017 Adelaide Festival, of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River, adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell from the novel by Kate Grenville, has proved to be its transformation. Director Neil Armfield has always said it was a work in progress and now, with this transfixing production, we can see how far it has come.

Grenville’s fictionalised version of her forebears claiming land along the Hawkesbury River is a grim account of miscommunication, conflict and murder between European settlers and the Aboriginal communities whose land had been invaded. It also proposes a view that some tragedies could have been averted. It is story of multiple perspectives, some contested, that challenge all who encounter it.

The Anstey Hill Quarry near Tea Tree Gully has an important place in Adelaide Festival history. In 1980 the legendary Peter Brook’s company performed, Conference of the Birds, there, followed in 1988 by his epic work, The Mahabharata. State Theatre CEO, Rob Brookman worked on both those ventures and had no difficulty persuading Festival directors, Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, to return to Anstey Hill to stage The Secret River. The result has been a triumph.

Designer Stephen Curtis has the benefit of a spectacular thirty metre rock face, partly covered with scrub, as backdrop to his pale green performance space. And, once the sun has gone, Mark Howett’s lighting captures texture and tints the night sky. The voices of the actors ring in the clear air –from Dhirrumbin’s prologue (from the majestic Ningali Lawford Wolf) to the concluding, heart-rending sound of Shaka Cook singing Ngalamalum’s lament.

The performances are excellent – Nathaniel Dean and Georgia Adamson as the hopeful pioneers, the Thornhills, Stephen Goldsmith, commanding as the elder Yalamundi, and Richard Piper, daubed in expressionist face paint, as the depraved Smasher Sullivan. Iain Grandage’s live music score is superb and the set pieces of the Dharug ceremonies and the settlers’ Blighty songs are impressively staged.

But no memory of this production is more enduring than the sound of muskets on Kaurna land, at a location so quintessentially Australian that the implications of the events that occurred at this river can never be secret again.

Murray Bramwell

Published in abridged form as “Echoes of history in the quarry” The Australian, March 6, 2017, p.12.

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