‘The Secret River’ review – a chilling look into Australia’s dark history

The Sydney Theatre Company deliver powerful performances in this adaptation of Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel – ★★★★

The opening night of The Secret River‘s London run was moving and poignant. Alongside the devastating tale of Australian colonialism at the centre of the play, actress Ningali Lawford-Wolf tragically passed away during the company’s time in Edinburgh. The first performance, and the rest of the run at the National Theatre, will be dedicated to the late performer who was one of the show’s creators.

Grenville’s tale follows the family of British convict William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) and their arrival in New South Wales. Australian history is laid bare as the group realise the land on which they find themselves is not theirs to take.

It is Georgia Adamson’s performance as Thornhill’s wife Sal which is particularly noticeable, as a character trying to establish a sense of family and structure within their new surroundings. Jeremy Sims is terrifying as the racist maniac Smasher Sullivan, giving the character a chilling laugh akin to the Joker as he maims and abuses the indigenous people. Elsewhere, Thornhill’s son Dick’s close friendship with the Dharug tribe illustrates with charm the argument that children cannot be born ignorant. William’s response to this, however, indicates a much more concerning tone.

Soundtracked by Ian Grandage, the score is skilfully performed by Isaac Hayward, although while at best it allows for clever breaks in the fourth wall, most of the time it drowns out narrator Dirrhumbin’s (Pauline Whyman) sombre recital of the script. A new role created in this adaptation to allow for the exposition of characters’ attitudes and emotions, this aspect of the production is all too often drowned out, making it difficult for us to understand the psychological side of Thornhill’s descent into darkness.

With the narration coming from the voice of the oppressed (in contrast to the original text), The Secret River prompts us to reconsider the lens in which we view colonialism and history, at the same time displaying the shocking horrors of the past with a haunting rawness.

The Secret River is now playing at the Olivier Theatre until 7 September.

Production Images: Ryan Buchanan.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch The Secret River for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.

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