Review: Secret River

Words by Abbey Howlett

Ascending up the dusty, burnt orange track lined with young smokey gums and a once disturbed, now settled bush-land, I get the feeling that I’m already on the set of Secret River, and the magic has begun. Above me is festoon lighting, and beside me, in hand, my mother…theatre is a joy we have often experienced together. 

After a couple of G&T’s, and a brief fan girl moment over Geoffrey Rush, we get ushered to our seating and told profusely not to take any photos or footage. Our seating rises maybe ten meters high at its peak, on its man-made scaffolding. My mum lays out the escape plan if it collapses, and I think, “Do we try to save Mr. Rush, who is sitting six seats away?”. These thoughts are trivial in comparison to the story I’m about to be told.

The stage is nestled in front of the cut out earth that once was an active quarry. This wall of rock and young vegetation reclaiming what is rightfully theirs is alive, sometimes crumbling, singing with bird calls, and an epic set for this evocative story.

The lights do not dim to prepare us for the start, rather the actors appear on the wings as the sun slowly disappears behind the hills, and the audience falls silent — but the kookaburras don't follow suit. The casual and honest use of this outdoor set is refreshing. Actors are visible even when “in the wings”, and props aren't hidden, rather placed on the piano, or the bench, like a jacket you might need later when it gets cold. This small cast of 23 displayed incredible versatility jumping between roles, and even instruments. 

Iain Grandage, the main musician and composer, was exposed on side-stage with his set up of loop pedals, effects, a cello, bells, and a piano with its guts showing, which he plucked and bowed and bashed in a truly unique way. Along with actors stepping in to play guitar, tin whistle and double bass, this simple yet full set-up provided delicate, emotive accompaniment, and holy-moly, the voices of some of the cast members as they sang traditional song were astounding. 

Secret River is one of many stories of first contact — its just one that is being told to a broad audience. It was portrayed in a very human way, both compassionate and raw. I’m sure most of us have imagined what that must have been like from both perspectives. The miss communication, the fear, the misconceptions, the unvalidated and unjust action of putting oneself above another, the shocking realisation that we might just all be the same. The most telling of this was the scenes of children from both the indigenous family and the English family playing together, free of prejudice, further proving that we are not born with these defining, separating differences, they are formed through society from fear, greed, ego…whatever the pathetic reason may be.

As I sit alongside the majority white Australian audience, I think, "everyone should see this". Surely every human can empathise with death, love and unjust actions, such as a skilful warrior with a wooden spear defending himself against a pale man, with a gun made of steel. At least we are seeing this, having our thoughts and emotions provoked, being made to face the history of this country and our path to comfort — these stories need to be told.

As a white Australian with descendants leading back to a convict that was pardoned and given land near Canberra, I feel an urging responsibility to educate myself on the history of this country, and, most importantly, the culture and stories of such a resourceful, spiritually connected to the earth people who are the first Australians. I often think what could have been if, when on arrival, the foreign invaders recognised how they might be received by the locals. If they had respected them and asked, “Hey, we’ve been plonked here, is there somewhere we can set up camp?”. If they had learnt and embraced the skills of an ancient people… how would our lives differ now? Would our population be a lot smaller? How would the landscape be different? Would there be a healthier balance in the biodiversity of Australia’s wildlife? What kind of music would we be making? But rather, I feel a deep sadness and disgust towards the history of this country. 

As Secret River is given a standing ovation, my mother and I, along with many others, cry.

Find out about upcoming shows from the State Theatre Company here.