Katie Greenville’s 2005 novel The Secret River has been adapted for the stage by the Sydney Theatre Company. The book looked at European colonisation of Australian Aboriginal land and shone a light upon the difficult history of Australia and its people. Its run at the Edinburgh International Festival comes at a time where the rights of Aborginal people are at the forefront of Australian politics.
The Secret River initially presents New South Wales as a open frontier land ready to be occupied. The set design, costume design and stage lightning all suggest a dusty and vast landscape that feels unexplored and mysterious. We follow the Thornhill family with English convict William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) being the patriarch. William has occupied land next to a river and moved his wife Sal (Georgia Adamson) and their two sons to the location in order to farm this land, raise money and then return to London. However, this location is not as open as initially thought and already has occupants. Aboriginal people make use of the river and landscape for their own survival.
The story is told from the perspective of Thornhill, a drawback given we do not get to know the Aboriginal people as well as the English family. When the local people take to the stage it is usually to highlight the difference between the original landowners and the new unwelcome occupiers. Otherwise, we never feel the same family connection that we do with the Thornhill family. At times a narrator (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) moves the story forward with evocative language. This works well as we occasionally get to see, hear and understand a bold Aboriginal voice.
Despite the adults struggling to communicate it is the children that strike up a bond with another. The white English kids play with the aboriginal children and their joyful innocence highlights how needless the conflict and disagreements are. The tragic ending of the play feels inevitable and of course highly unnecessary. Miscommunication, privilege and arrogance all lead Thornhill down a path of violence and ignorance where greed, desire and power are his driving force.