The Secret River – A powerful theatrical piece of Australian history

It is not very often that Australians get the chance to put a mirror up to our history; to reflect back and contemplate upon events that have shaped and influenced who and what we have become today.

The Secret River Image - Heidrun Lohr
The Secret River
Image – Heidrun Lohr

The Secret River gives us a chance to do just that, however it is not an easy theatrical experience as it explores the relationship between two families divided by culture and land. It explores a time Australia has until recently tried to forget.

 “It takes us back to a moment in our country’s narrative when a different outcome, a different history, was possible…. where those who came together might have listened and learnt from those who were here, might have found a way of living here on this land with respect and humility.”

(Neil Armfield – Director)

The story is narrated by Dhirrumbin, played by Ursula Yovich, with raw emotion that reveals the scars that have been handed down through the generations. At times she is called on to sing and it is haunting to hear her.

William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean), transported to Australia for stealing, longs for a piece of land to call his own. After being pardoned for his crimes he sets out with his wife Sal (Anita Hegh) and two sons to establish a home. His wife however, longs for the day when they can go back home to England and resume their lives with some money in their pockets and make something of themselves. Agreeing to stay for five years she begins scratching marks into the wall counting the days until she can return home. Dean and Hegh convey the struggle within as they try to understand the Dharu people against the popular belief, among the settlers, that they are just savages. Such lines as “We wouldn’t mind if they buggered off somewhere else”, reveal prejudices which are still commonly heard today.

Lachlan Elliott plays the older son, Willie, who believes all the stories about the Dharu people and is ready to protect his family at all costs. The younger brother Dick Thornhill, played by Tom Usher, befriends two of the aboriginal boys – performed by Kamil Ellis and James Slee. He begins to spend time learning the aboriginal culture and ultimately teaches his father and mother tolerance and understanding of their ways. The scenes shared by the boys are full of fun and friendship as they play games, douse each other in water and slide across the wet stage as if on a water slide.

The Secret River Image - Heldrun Lohr
The Secret River
Image – Heldrun Lohr

The ensemble cast, deliver strong, convincing performances as they each present differing attitudes and understanding of the Dharu people. Jeremy Sims as Smasher Sullivan commands attention from the audience as the villain. He delights in telling stories of savages who murder children in their beds and steal the crops of fellow settlers, while training attack dogs and keeping a young aboriginal girl as a sex slave. One is forced to question – Just who is the savage?

Roy Gordon as the elder, Yalamundi,  Bruce Spence as Loveday, and Colin Moody as Thomas Blackwood produce some of the other notable moments in the performance, and let us not forget Judith McGrath, who like Sims, commands the stage and provides some of the lighter comical moments.

The music, composed and performed by Iain Grandage along with ensemble members of the cast is haunting. The set designed by Stephen Curtis and lighting by Mark Howett reflect the sparseness of the Australian bush and the simplicity of the time. Stage right is a camp fire, while on the left is a piano and artifacts that represent the life left behind in England.

As we reach the climax of the production friendships have been forged, cultures have begun to understand each other, but misunderstandings remain and errors have been made. Old prejudices now become truths and justice must be sought. As convicts blow powder from their hands, to represent each gun shot while singing, “London bridge is falling down my fair lady”, and Dhirrumbin recounts how her people were killed, sobs and sniffs can be heard throughout the theatre.

The Secret River is a powerful theatrical performance depicting a major part of Australian history, and as such should become – and remain – one of our most significant artistic historical pieces.


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