A friend in the business asked what The Secret River was like. Here is my slightly tinkered with email reply: ‘You must see The Secret River. The Secret River is 6 years in the making (to our amazement we found out on opening night it was the first project commissioned by Cate and Andrew when they took on the artistic directorship). It’s not only Neil at his finest, Bovell at his finest, a cast drawn to brilliant performances – sets costumes workshop etc. But no-one has yet said that this is also a highly intellectual and polemic work. Its race relations politics are well worked through and we have Australian theatre’s most important contribution to the History Wars debate since Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji.”
ALL OTHER PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEIDRUN LOHR
That ‘History Wars’ kerfuffle may have gone quiet in other media and art forms for want of anything further left to say. But our theatre has struggled throughout to find effective ways to engage. Not for want of interest or effort, or the number of works (just one being The Seven Stages of Grieving) that have paved the way for these tw0 outstanding works for the stage. But to get to the top, it’s a matter of both understanding the potential of the art form we call theatre, plus the ability to realise that potential technically and creatively. Saying is one thing, doing is another. Both Scott Rankin (director of Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji, and Neil Armfield (director of the STC’s The Secret River), understand in their bones what theatre was, is and can be. And both possess the skills to bring a major work to life. If in very different ways. Despite both being about Australian race/culture relations, the two works could not be more different. Nor the methods the directors employ. Do I prefer one to the other? I don’t think we need to go there quite yet.
There are a few theatre-makers hovering in the next rank who I think are making their own way up the ladder of excellence, mostly by trial and error. And some excellent older creatives still around who have been forgotten with nary a thought for what they might have to offer the ‘now’ generation. A great squandering that.
For example: Chekhov master, George Ogilvie, may not be up to directing a full main-stage production these days. But how many people who think they are important in Australia’s theatre-world today are familiar with Oglivie’s name, much less his body of work? I can cite another director of the first order barely remembered from the generation that followed Ogilvie’s: namely Rex Cramphorn, who spent several of his early years writing theatre reviews for the Bulletin. On 9 November 1968, Cramphorn published an end-of-year overview titled ‘Ideals and Actualities’, covering both Sydney and Melbourne seasons. Not too happy with what had been dished up, towards the end of the essay he writes in a fragment of consolation: “No-one would suggest the theatre is booming in Melbourne. But some conclusions may be drawn from the success of the Melbourne Theatre Company, with George Ogilvie’s production of The Three Sisters, probably the best thing I’ve seen in theatre in Australia.” (1 – see end of post)
This is a glowing praise from a young buck (Cramphorn) who in the next few years would emerge as the most formally innovative director this country has ever produced, making work (initially in Grotowski’s ‘Poor Theatre’ tradition) in a manner entirely at odds with Ogilvie’s essentially classical style. Their commonality – a huge belief in the importance of the actor and a meticulous eye for (correct) detail.
My questions are these. If you don’t know your theatre’s history, how could you ever get near knowing - and/or sharing – a story from our nation’s broader history? Plus, if you’re in the play-making craft, leave the room now if you can’t or won’t put your actors first. Ogilvie and Cramphorn, Rankin and Armfield share the same view: it’s their job to assist the actors in finding a way for them to tell the story. The theatre director is a facilitator not an auteur, even if the final look of the work gives the latter impression. People wonder at how Armfield bumbles round a rehearsal room, as did Cramphorn: yet up come the lights on opening night and what is our reaction? ‘This could only be an Armfield’ or ‘This could only be a Cramphorn’.
Self-centredness is quite a valid posture in other art-forms like painting, novel-writing and particular film-making where actors are indeed rightly slaves to the director’s celluloid/digital vision – where we are seeing a story through one eye (not even two). But not theatre: in the most painfully telling example of last year was Benedict Andrews’ navel gazing in Every Breath at the Belvoir compared to his brilliant open-hearted generous rendition for Opera Australia of The Marriage of Figaro which had premiered only a week earlier.
In making important work, development and rehearsal time are factors. Scott Rankin’s Ngapartji Ngrapartji took seven years to create – far reaching, unrelenting, thorough: involving much consultation with the owners of the story and traversing much sensitive cultural terrain. Pretty much daring to go where no whitefella in Australian show business has ever gone before. With a passion to truly tell a story from the view of this country’s First People as best he could, given the position he was born into as a non-Aboriginal. There are plenty of posts dedicated to Rankin’s work on this website – if you can find any of them. This site I know needs a thorough tidy up.
Armfield’s The Secret River, we discover on opening night, took six years to produce. I doubt if it took as many working hours as one of Rankin’s major works. There is a lot to be said, nonetheless, for letting things brew – and in this case it shows. This is one of the most meticulous works from Armfield (and his team) out of the many he has created in his favoured ‘backyard barbie’ style. A deceptive throwaway feel that leaves the audience wide open when the big moments hit.
That said, he has been forced to tread warily through much of the same land-mined cultural terrain that Rankin has stared down. I’m not going to favour one over the other here because each of these directors go about making theatre in very different ways. Rankin determined to ensure the people who own the story, or are close to it, are included in its dramatisation – and ideally benefit socially as well. Say in the case of the more recent Namatjira, descendants not only got to show their own art work in good galleries in all the main cities the show played. But by the end of the run they were getting prices twice or more than what they had been before the show got up.
In The Secret River, Armfield is somewhat let off this hook. This is essentially an Australian (History Wars) race-relations story (as were Ngapartji Ngapartji and Namatjira), but quintessentially from a whitefella’s perspective. Where Rankin might defer to many people from outback communities in making his work, Armfield really only needed Stephen Page, of Bangarra Dance Theatre fame, as an Artistic Associate, and Richard Green as a Language Consultant. No going bush for Armfield. But nor was there any need.
What must have come first after choosing to commission this project would have been who to hire as an adapter? From novel to play-script – in this instance from a very good novel to a play-script which will need to go about its task of telling the same story in a very different way. The job went to Andrew Bovell, not only one of our most sensitive playrights but with an intellect to grasp the fundamentals of the challenge. Firstly, a big slab of the novel is left out. I will come back to that. But unlike the novel, we have characters standing right in front of us and half are Aboriginal. Both sides try to communicate the only way they know how – in their own language. So great swathes of the dialogue are in a particular Indigenous language we whitefellas in the audience don’t understand. In program notes from historian Anne McGrath, we are told that ”the people from the region the play is set - in and around parts of the Hawkesbury River – identify as Darkinjung and Daruk people. However with its tributaries, creeks, elbows, and associated pathways, various dialect and language groups have complex histories of connection.”
For a mainstream basically white audience this language wall makes a big statement. While there are very many Aboriginal languages and dialects (many dying out fast), how many of us know how to say ‘hello’ in even just one of them? It’s a question Big hART has asked its audiences in the past. Also it’s clear to see that Bovell is an excellent collaborator. As is Armfield, including in the rehearsal room where he constantly encourages input from his actors. But here especially there must have also been an intense co-operation between Bovell and language consultant, Richard Green (Language Consultant); and a great sharing among the cast and production team overall. Overall their shared endeavour creates such a deceptively simple and seemlessly put together work.
This post is somewhat back-to-front: keen to discuss the making of the work I have overlooked the making of what? Kate Grenville’s beautiful novel of the same name - The Secret River - tells the story of the struggles of William Thornhill, a boatsman on the Thames who, being caught for theft in an effort to feed his family, is convicted and sent with his family to the gulag at Sydney Cove. Where, after some years, he is set free and allowed to make a life for himself and his family – however he chooses. Bovell has taken the bold step of beginning the play with Thornhill staking out a claim on what he thinks is an unclaimed piece of unused, unwanted acreage jutting out into the lapping waters of one of the Hawkesbury River’s many quiet estuaries. It’s not much but it’s ‘freedom’.
As the drama unfolds we get to meet a family of Aboriginals who happen to consider this same piece of land as theirs. Each group politely waits for the other to move on. After a few years of tolerance and near-friendship, both families realise this is not going to happen. That’s when the trouble really starts.
There is an imbalance between the way the two family groups are portrayed. The Thornhills are fully fleshed out individuals (western-style). Whereas the Aboriginal characters present more-or-less as a structureless mob. We can tell they have a leader in Yalamundi, but after that? Here too the production is making a point: this story is told through the eyes of William Thornhill and this blob of lookalikes is all he can see. He becomes particularly concerned when he discovers his boys are making friends with the ‘native’ kids, playing games and learning skills from them. It is mostly through the innocence of the children in the story that any potential rapprochement is cultivated. Sadly the adults, especially the white adults, fail to take advantage of these openings to better understanding and reconciliation.
Given the inability of the two racial/cultural groupings to cultivate any meaningful coming together, Bovell decides that at times a narrator is needed. This responsibility is given to Ursula Yovich, thoughtfully played, along with a couple of other smaller character roles. She may be overly gentle in her rendering of a story that ends in pointless tragedy. But I have made the point before, going way back to the emerging works by Aboriginal theatre-makers in the 1980s: that there is something counter-productive in yelling at people who have already declared their interest and empathy by putting dollars down for the chance to know more. I am not at all against ‘angry’ theatre, and there have been some great examples when Aboriginals got their first chances to make the kind of theatre whitefellas do. And on the subject of race-relations in this country, even today, we could have more of that. But it was certainly not the approach Jack Davis took, Australia’s most successful Aboriginal playwright through the 1970s and 80s, despite the searing content of his tales (Kullark – 1972, The Dreamers – 1982, No Sugar – 1985). Nor has it ever been part of Armfield’s repertoire, which is partly why his productions of several of Davis’s plays worked so well.
Armfield understands that Aussies get their back s up very quickly, and so he calculates social change by way of theatre-making in inches. Over the past twenty-five years he has, as a result, quietly knocked-down barriers and moved us all a good distance. The opportunities he gave to the telling of stories by Aboriginal people about Aboriginal people when Artistic Director of Belvoir cannot be under-estimated. Built on the endeavours of many others – actors, writers, and directors from both sides of the racial divide. Whitefella efforts going back to Katharine Susannah Pritchard’s Brumby Innes (1927) and the New Theatre movement in Melbourne which, by the 1940s, was employing Aboriginal actors. Then in 1970 came Jack Charles’s Nindethana troupe which joined forces for a while with the Australian Performing Group (APG), along with new plays in the European style by Aboriginal writers, including Robert Merritt and Kevin Gilbert, addressing interracial disfunction. One could add many paragraphs to get to the present where we now have our first Aboriginal Artistic Director of a State Theatre Company, Wesley Enoch in Queensland; who attracted international as well as national attention in 1995 with his direction of 7 Stages of Grieving (written and originally performed by Deborah Mailman), and Rachael Maza Long (daughter of Aboriginal actor Bob Maza) very recently directing the autobiographical work Jack Charles Vs the Crown, co-devised on the writing side by Jack’s life-long mate, John Romeril.
Jumping over very many significant writers and their plays, directors and their productions, actors and their characters is my Captain’s Pick. It goes to Scott Rankin’s Big hART Theatre Company’s Ngapartji Ngapartji, a work I mentioned at the top of this post. He is currently working on a mega-project in WA’s the Pilbara region. My encounter with Ngapartji Ngapartji, when it played at Belvoir, was the kick-start for this blog. Entirely different in construction and temperament, I could almost say ‘coming from the opposite direction’, The Secret River is also a masterpiece - if not quite as complex in its invention
If we forget the meta-framework of race-relations that so far holds together (I hope) the argument of this post, let’s now push the lens in closer. What do we have? As I started in that brief email to a colleague: ‘Neil at his best, Bovell at his finest..’ etc
Some of the best scenes are when we break away from the ‘inter-racial-families-in-conflict’ narrative and we get to meet a circus-like carnival of weird and wild freaks who have previously staked out their claims on other pieces of the Hawkesbury and made it work for themselves, one way or another. They enjoy their lives: if nothing else it’s at a distance not only from England, but also (most of the time) the authorities based in Sydney Cove.
To the acting. From the first moment the emancipated convict William Thornhill convict carves his name into this little patch of godless earth, we know actor Nathanial Dean is born for this part. I’ve only seen Dean in a couple of live shows before, and for whatever reason his work did not particularly register. To give this massive role to a near unknown takes almost reckless courage on the part of the director, but Dean takes up the challenge and very successfully gives it his all. This is a blistering heart-stopping performance when required, and these ‘hot’ moments are held back typically by Armfield for those special occasions when the big guns are genuinely necessary. Not since Ewen Leslie in the second half of Benedict Andrews’ The War of the Roses have we had such a moment where an actor takes his professional destiny by the horns. It’s a beautiful, soul-searching performance that captures every quiver of competing emotion this role demands.
Armfield is famous for his impeccable casting (with the odd mega-blooper tossed in to remind us even he is mortal). No mistakes here. Anita Hegh as William’s wife Sal, is both as wilful and submissive as the character and the times allow. Beautiful and measured, staunch – with just a hint of bruising to her soul. I am not going to go through the whole cast one by one. It’s in the nature of the work that the Aboriginal actors are given fewer opportunities to distinguish themselves as individuals (they are a ‘the other’). But for the history books, the Aboriginals in the cast are: Bailey Doomadgee, Kamil Ellis, Roy Gordon (as the Elder), Ethel Anne Gundy, Trevor Jamieson, Rhimi Johnson Page, James Slee, James Slee and Miranda Tapsell.
The actors cast to play the Hawkesbury ‘maddies’, on the other hand, get to turn in some of their most colourful work ever. Each a Hogarth drawing come to life. As a group they create a vivid reality by way of emotion-releasing brutish farce. Rarely have I seen Jeremy Sims, Colin Moody, Judith McGrath or Bruce Spence be so bold and inventive. I’ve left out the Thornhill kids, played by Lachlan Elliott, Rory Potter and Callum McMannus. All sweet, upright and bright. Here is probably the right place to mention composer Iain Grandage who performs live on stage: I don’t know how to write about music. But it worked for me.
We learn as the years go by and the NSW colony grew, settlers on the Hawkesbury found it easier to ignore Sydney altogether and instead row upstream and do business with the evolving township of Windsor – which eventually is where the story ends. Thornhill’s ultimate transformation into a gentleman of means requires not just a breakdown in his family’s relations with the Aboriginal cohabitants led by Yalamundi, but also a massacre.
The setting by Stephen Curtis is iconic – the roots of a massive stage-size ghost gum (solving this theatre’s acoustic flaw at the same time). And I thought costume designer, Tess Schofield, did an inspired job creatimg the impression of a time long-gone-by without resorting to the literal. Every item of clothing feels and looks like it’s from back then, but it’s not. Check the ‘boardies’ on Rhimi Johnson Page (see photo 4 from top). Make-up also adheres to the costumes’ mix-and-match aesthetic, if that’s what you call these smears of colours across the characters’ faces – wounds, burns, war paint, carnival masquerade.
If the play has a dominant theme, it has been aptly put by Rory Potter, a young actor playing one of Thornhill’s sons: ‘I see the story as being about how Australia’s future and past could have been different if people like Thornhill had stood up and said this [killing] was wrong. I think people need to know what actually happened.‘ (SMH – 21 Jan 2013)
If I can pull the lens back for one last long-shot. Just as we get this sickening sense as Thornhill marks out his modest little plot in the opening scene, that it symbolises the entire continent; equally the elder Yalamundi and his mob represent the entire indigenous population of this country ultimately dispossessed of all that was theirs and many murdered. I know the season is sold out, but it’s touring to other Australian cities – and let’s hope it can come back to Sydney for another run! So I won’t spoil the ending. Only to say that the production closes on a very sad image that could well speak of 150 years ago and/or today. It may only be William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) and Ngalamalum (Trevor Jamieson) no longer talking to each other, and the building of a fence to keep them apart. But it is also very obviously the end of a game of winners and losers. Can there ever be true reconciliation?
(1) If any of you found interest in my rather inexplicable references to George Ogilvie and Rex Cramphon up the top: for more go to ‘A Raffish Experience: the Collected Writings of Rex Camphorn (edited by Ian Maxwell for Currency Press). Or with a click of your mouse, you can read this essay through (also by Ian Maxwell and published in Double Dialogues). It’s well worth it.
If you are still wondering, it was all leading to an anecdote about Ogilvie on tour with an MTC show and rehearsing his famous Three Sisters at the same time. It was about Monica Maugham getting up extra early one morning to practice and practice, until she got it right. How the kind of maid she was playing would correctly lay out a very long linen table cloth. It had something to do with striving for perfection I guess. If you want an even madder segue: it was on one of these regional Victoria MTC bus tours of the mid-1950s that a bored witless (witful?) Barry Humphries came up with the first inklings of Edna Everage.
How vaste a distance have we traveled since William Thornhill’s emancipation? And for better or worse?