Sydney Theatre Company, Adelaide Festival, and the State Theatre Company of South Australia
The Quarry
Until 19 Mar 2017

Review by Linda Edwards

Kate Grenville wrote the acclaimed novel and Andrew Bovell adapted it for theatre, and so with the combination of such major Australian writing talents, a brilliant director and cast of consummate actors, what could go wrong? Absolutely nothing. The play, which premièred in Sydney in 2013 in a slightly different form, brings the novel to life, taking nothing away but adding extra dimensions, especially in giving the Aboriginal characters a voice. It is rare indeed for an entire audience to immediately jump to its feet in a standing ovation the moment the play is finished, but at Thursday night’s performance that is exactly what happened.

The play tells the story of William Thornhill, an ex-convict who “takes up” land with his family in the Hawkesbury River area of NSW in the early 19th century, only to find himself embroiled in conflict with the people whose land he is effectively stealing, the Dharug family. There are moments when it seems conflict need not be inevitable, such as when Thornhill’s youngest son Dick and the two Dharug boys, Garraway and Narabi, play together, and when Dick learns skills such as how to make fire. There is also much comedy, such as when Thornhill’s wife Sal exchanges amicable exchanges with Buryia and Gilyagan, and in Smasher Sullivan’s dogs. Lasting relationships are formed between a few of the black and white characters, but gradually relations deteriorate into ugliness, poisoning, gunfire and death.

The backdrop at Anstey Hill is utterly perfect, bringing the audience into close contact with Kaurna land (itself wounded by years of quarrying). The rocky face dwarfs audience and performers alike and effectively acts as a major character in the drama. The land towering above us is real, beautiful, and poignant, and the lighting by Mark Howett brings out the lush colours of oranges, yellows, and reds. At times, the shadows, especially of the Aboriginal characters, dance large on the rock wall like shadows of the past and part of the land itself. The difference in attitude to the land soon becomes clear: to the Dharug people the land is them, but to the white settlers it is a thing to be owned and subdued. We empathise because Thornhill and many of the others lived such desperate and powerless lives of poverty that their desire to own something of their own and experience a level of control is understandable. In light of what happens later, our empathy is chilling.

The music, written by Iain Grandage, and performed by him with the help of cast members, is surreal and often haunting, and is integral to the play. Grandage is not content to just play the piano, he plucks and taps the exposed strings to create brilliant effects. He also adds mood to the piece with some beautiful cello playing. At times the music is almost overwhelming in its power, as when the whites sing a song of home and are circled on stage by the blacks singing a haunting lament.

Director Neil Armfield uses stylised metaphors to great effect, with almost silent puffs of white flour indicating gunfire while echoing back to the poisoned flour, and the same ropes used to restrain the dogs being used later to represent a boat. The Dharug language features throughout, but the strong acting of the Indigenous performers ensures a translation is not needed. On the few occasions where the exact meaning is unclear this adds to the audience’s understanding of how confusion can occur so easily.

The acting of the entire company is superb. Ningali Lawford Wolf narrates the story as Dhirrumbin and is consistently strong, enthralling, and always believable. She also plays Dulla Djin, the “wife” of Thomas Blackwood, who is admirably played by Colin Moody, whose part takes him through a gamut of emotions and range of intensity. Nathaniel Dean is extremely powerful as Thornhill, and his conflicting desires, anguish, bitterness, and the choices he has to make, are always well justified. His comical miscommunications with the Dharug people are also highlights.

Dean is well matched by Georgia Adamson as Sal Thornhill, who is convincing as a tough woman alone in the bush and a vulnerable, homesick mother. Frances Djulibing (Buryia) and Natasha Wanganeen (Gilyagan and Muruli) are effective and frequently funny, especially in the scenes with Sal, but they also add an emotional aspect, at least one of which is gut-wrenching. Shaka Cook is brilliant as the brooding, defiant Dharug warrior Ngalamalum, and his song at the end is unforgettable.

Stephen Goldsmith plays Dharug elder Yalamundi with a fine mix of grace, power, defiance, and ultimately, resignation. Other outstanding performers include Jennifer Hagan as Mrs Herring, Richard Piper as Smasher Sullivan, and Bruce Spence as Loveday. All of the younger performers were impressive, with Jules Dawson particularly enjoying his role as Dick.

There is a heart-stopping moment, which may be due to the genius of writer, director or actor, when Buryia (Djulibing) plays with Sal’s skirt. The single, simple action instantly transports the drama across two hundred years to the present, showing us that the division of humanity into “us” and “them”, the assumption that one group’s desires and wants are more important than another’s, and the tension and conflict that result, are still unfortunately with us today. Perhaps we can learn from this play.

“The Secret River” has performed to high acclaim around the country and with good reason. The Anstey Hill production is bound to be a sellout.