The Secret River is one of the most important pieces of theatre you are likely to see in this country and, therefore, the perfect centrepiece to the 2017 Adelaide Festival.
Stunningly staged in the Anstey Hill Quarry, Neil Armfield’s production is a dramatic and cultural triumph that lays bare the fractured heart of the nation. It is an uncompromising play, confronting audiences with uncomfortable truths from our past that remain unresolved in the present.
And while it is an emotional, sometimes harrowing journey, Armfield skilfully work his audience, creating moments of genuine warmth and levity to fashion a complete theatrical experience. In its physical playfulness and organic use of music, The Secret River brings to mind his earlier production, Cloudstreet.
Andrew Bovell has done an excellent job in adapting Kate Grenville’s novel, with well paced story-telling and convincing characterisation. In William Thornhill (compellingly played by Nathaniel Dean) the audience is presented with an ordinary man and we empathise with his aspirations. This makes his character development all the more uncomfortable, as he finds himself drawn into the centre of this Australian tragedy. It’s a fine balance the play strikes, but one that’s crucial to its success as a dramatic work.
There are some fantastic performances here from the ensemble cast. As the Thornhills, Dean and Georgia Adamson are an excellent pairing, while Richard Piper makes our skin crawl, seething in the role of antagonist, Smasher Sullivan. But at the emotional heart of the piece is the performance of Ningali Lawford Wolf, whose narration is delivered with a nuanced sense of poetry and compelling conviction.
The quarry setting is another star of the show. It’s a breathtaking location, lending a further layer of authenticity to the production. Be warned, however, even on hot days, the gully winds can make things rather cold after the sun goes down, so be sure to bring a good jacket.
Everyone should see The Secret River; playing throughout the entire Adelaide Festival season, there is no excuse to miss this one.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor