By Andrew BovellDrama Sydney Theatre Company in association with The Confederation of Australian International Arts Festivals, Sydney Festival, The Centenary of Canberra, Perth International Arts Festival
The Secret River, by Kate Grenville, adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell
Andrew Bovell, the award-winning playwright responsible for Speaking in Tongues (filmed as Lantana), has adapted Kate Grenville’s historical novel The Secret River for the stage.
The play tells the story of two families – one settler, one Indigenous – divided by culture and land, dramatising the big questions raised by the book.
Convict William Thornhill, exiled from nineteenth-century London, discovers the penal colony offers the chance for a place of his own. Ignoring the evidence that the land he takes is already taken, he applies his own cultural idea of ‘inhabited’ rather than understanding the different way in which the Dharug people already inhabit the banks of the Hawkesbury River. They are as reluctant to leave as he is, and as his attachment to the place deepens, along with the burgeoning conflict, Thornhill makes a terrible decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Grenville’s book showed that there was a moment in Australian history when there was the potential for the two cultures to co-exist. ‘The play really seeks to understand that possibility before it starts to unravel and then you start to get a sense of what a tragedy our history was,’ says Andrew Bovell. ‘Because it so easily could have gone another way.’
The play sheds a greater light on the Indigenous perspective than the book, and concentrates on the Hawkesbury River location (losing the section of the book set in London). The Darug characters speak exclusively in their own language, as a way of enhancing their perspective.
‘Bovell’s dialogue allows us to understand the settlers’ lust for land,’ writes Henry Reynolds in the Monthly. ‘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.’
Adapting Kate Grenville’s epic novel for the theatre was always going to be a risky undertaking, but Bovell’s script is as commanding as the original, while insisting on being very much its own creature.
In giving the Dharug people a voice, Bovell sets the stage for a struggle for understanding, both verbal and spiritual. This is great theatre on a grand scale – bold, compassionate, visceral, and demanding. Bovell demonstrates why he is one of Australia’s master storytellers, tackling the tragedy at the heart of our national story with tenderness, fluidity, poetry and pace. The final scene is a heartbreaking call to the better part of all of us.
It seems unlikely, when she began her research 13 years ago, that Kate Grenville could have anticipated what would follow from the simple decision to write about her family history. The publication of the fruits of that endeavour in 2005, her novel The Secret River, caused no shortage of controversy, no doubt in part due to its immense popularity (having been reprinted ten times in two years, winning a swag of awards and being shortlisted for a whole lot more, it was an unequivocal commercial and critical success) but also as a result of the author’s own commentary on her creative process.
A loose fictionalisation of Grenville’s own ancestor Solomon Wiseman, The Secret River follows protagonist William Thornhill as he is prosecuted for theft in London and spared the gallows, only to be placed on board a convict ship bound for Australia. The novel traces his journey from London to Sydney Cove with his wife Sal, his subsequent emancipation and his acquisition of land on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.
The nature of this acquisition — in reality, the violent expulsion of Indigenous people from their own land — was understandably a subject of much concern for Grenville, both personally and in terms of the story she was trying to tell, and she was remarkably open about her struggles with the question of representation. Her reflections on the relationship between history and fiction sparked the ire of historians like Inga Clendinnen, but perhaps more important were her contributions to the debate about stories by Anglo Australians that include Indigenous characters. ‘I’d always known I wasn’t going to try to enter the consciousness of the Aboriginal characters,’ she wrote in her exegetical companion text Searching for the Secret River. ‘I didn’t know or understand enough, and felt I never would.’
Andrew Bovell’s adaptation for the stage, commissioned by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton for Sydney Theatre Company in 2006 and received to sell-out seasons and critical acclaim when the curtain finally rose in 2013, is a significant advancement on the novel, both narratively and politically. Dispensing with an entire two thirds of the book, and keeping only those pivotal moments that centre on the dispute over land, Bovell’s play takes us straight to the heart of the political and social conflict: how men, seeking something to own in the world, can bring themselves to justify even the most abhorrent cruelties. Domesticity, a humble pursuit in any other context, here lays the groundwork for dispossession and massacre.
Such a sharply abridged narrative is only further emphasised by the script’s departure from the structural restrictions of the original text. While Grenville left ‘a hollow in the book, a space of difference’ where the perspectives of the Indigneous characters lay, Bovell’s script gives the Dharug names, voices and personalities in their own right, flipping the structure of the source text on its head. Not only do they speak their own language — entirely untranslated in the STC production, much to the credit of the creative team — but their relationships with Thornhill, his family and his cohorts, not to mention their development as characters in their own right, finds greater depth and nuance in this representation, which gives them agency in a way that silence, no matter how benevolent its intentions, cannot. (In this way, the script perhaps has more in common with the novel’s sequel, The Lieutenant, which in many ways fills the ‘hollow’ of The Secret River through its development of the character of Taragan.) Bovell’s narrator, furthermore, is not the omniscient, ostensibly impartial voice of Western literary tradition but Dhirrumbin, the river itself.
These differences are crucial: they demonstrate what is possible through meaningful consultation and depth of research, but also through a collaborative approach. But The Secret River demonstrates something else as well: an acute understanding not only of the narrative requirements of the stage, but that form itself can be a tool for progress. The presence of Indigenous dialogue on a page necessitates an Indigenous speaker, their presence in a rehearsal room, in dialogue with a writer and a director, and finally, on a stage: all of which happens all too rarely in Australian theatre.
Stephanie Convery is a Melbourne writer and reviewer who works at the Melbourne Theatre Company.
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