The Secret River, adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell from a book by Kate Grenville | Directed by Neil Armfield

Sydney Theatre Company | Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney | Until 20 February

Published in 2005, The Secret River, by Kate Grenville, was not only a best-selling novel but a text treasured by many Australian and international readers.

Meticulously researched and described by one critic as ‘a national confessional’, it is a seminal book that deals with loss and distress and the unwritten theme of making amends.

The theatrical adaptation originally opened three years ago as part of the Sydney Festival, when a collective talent came together and transported this novel to stage, where it received even more critical acclaim.

Now at the start of 2016 it returns — this time to the Roslyn Packer Theatre, where Andrew Bovell once again wrestles with the weight of placing this complex novel on stage. But let me assure you, it is certainly worth the struggle.

The history-changing events enacted on stage take place in New South Wales in 1813. The titular river is the Hawkesbury or Dhirrumbinand, and on its banks we encounter a clash of civilizations — British convicts v the Indigeneous custodians of the land.

As Armfield explains in the program, he “wants to respectfully and reflectively mourn the genocide that has occurred” as well as wanting to “celebrate the survival of Aboriginal culture against all the forces …”

One of these forces is William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) and his wife Sal (Georgia Adamson), who journeyed from the slums of London to rise to Australian squattocracy in NSW. But their ascension comes at costly price.

Dean embodies all of the attributes of Will — his physical prowess, his need for security and his dominating desire to control his own life, as does Adamson as Sal, who faces the mounting hardship with humour and determination. Furthermore, she symbolizes the migrant experience as she attempts, against the odds, to recreate her life in London.

This is very much an ensemble cast — a stellar ensemble cast, for sure — too numerous to mention by name, and there are many ‘big’ names involved!  However, Armfield’s direction and collaborative approach ensures that this huge and important story is never compromised.

This is theatre at its best; a collaboration of the elite; the most talented and visionary practitioners and creators of Australian theatre have aligned to make a truly sublime work.

Dhirrumbin, the play’s narrator, also needs a special mention. It is she who recounts the tragedy and assists the audience in their understanding of the Dharug people, giving them voice and sharing the traditions of the Dharug world on stage.

Iain Grandage provides a gently subtle musical composition, delivered by Issac Hayward who provides a live sound track from side stage.  From here he impressively plays cello and a range of instruments to sensitively accompany the drama. Stephen Curtis’s deceptively simple set design uncannily captures the vast majesty and beauty of the Hawkesbury and the jaw-dropping, expansive nature of its terrain.

This is an epic story that transcends theatre. If, like me, you missed it first time around, I urge you to go and see it. If you did see it, go see it again! Thumbs up!

Above: Rory Potter, Nathaniel Dean, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Kelton Pell and Shaka Cook. All images: Heidrun Löhr.

Shaka Cook.

Issac Hayward.

Georgia Adamson, Madeleine Madden, Frances Djulibing and Ningali Lawford-Wolf.