It’s easy to form an idea about what The Secret River might be like without having seen it. If I tell you that it’s a play about English settlement in Australia and the genocide of the aboriginal people you might start to form an image about how the play will make you feel and the perspective that it may take. My first thought was of Rabbit Proof Fence. I was made to watch it when I was at school and despite it being a well constructed film, at 12 years old I didn’t enjoy watching it. I re-watched it several years later and although I appreciated it a little more I still didn’t enjoy it. But maybe that’s the point.
It’s a story so devastating that to feel guilt, shame, and regret is appropriate – expected almost.
But it doesn’t have to be told that way.
The Secret River by Sydney Theatre Company (and presented by Queensland Theatre Company) is a brilliant production in it’s mastery of a true 3rd person perspective. Rather than delivering the story like a moralistic fable The Secret River simply outlines a series of increasingly drastic events through a cast of characters that are portrayed as neither heroes nor villains.
Much of the story of The Secret River is told through the eyes of a young convict family settling into life in Australia. As they discover that they are not alone in Australia their apprehension, fear, and curiosity are played out with a captivating honesty. The British immigrants run through every possible emotion: they ignore their indigenous neighbours, they fear them, they become curious, and they battle internal conflicts. The aborigines experience the same thing.
“If we wait long enough, they’ll leave” – A poignant mantra echoed by both the Aborigines and the settlers.
The narrative unfolds like a classic tragedy with the viewer left feeling helpless as they watch the seemingly inevitable chain of events take place. The narration seamlessly integrates with the performance and, again, provides a detached rather than positioning commentary.
A minimalistic, haunting, and at times atonal musical score is performed on stage by the talented musician Isaac Hayward. The music is a general soundscape that you don’t realise is having an effect on you until the cello suddenly brings tingles to the back of your neck. The entire piano is used with the piano strings frequently plucked for a harp-like effect.
The set manages to be both minimalistic yet versatile with some of the best use of the stage I’ve seen in a long while. Mud is thrown onto the stage, blood drips onto the floor, and despite the exposed lighting bar reminding us that this is a performance it’s easy to become immersed in the landscape. Characters describe the landscape and chart out locations using mad-maps on the floor – this method of describing the space is effective and appropriate for the context. The characters tell you about the curves of the river and the tall gorge, and thanks to some excellent scripting there isn’t any need for dramatic scene changes. There’s just enough cues to trigger your imagination and no excess. The lighting is understated yet used to great effect at moments of profundity.
The Secret River tells a story that we all know, but tells it in a way that is completely unique. It’s an exploration of our psychology, human nature, cruelty, and greed, yet also manages to have heartfelt moments and even humour. Ever actor manages their role with a delicate and convincing realism. This is the production that I wish I’d seen when I was at school. There’s no better way to understand our history.
Book a ticket today. Theatre doesn’t get any better than this.
The Secret River runs until the 5th of March at the Playhouse at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.