• 27 Jan 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE 14 Comments

    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.” 

    Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River
    © Cassandra Hannagan / ABC Arts online


    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.

    Nathaniel Dean as William Thornhill

    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)

    Anita Hegh as Thornhill’s wife – Sal

    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’.

    An early meeting: Ursula Yovich as the narrator, Roy Gordon as the elder Yalamundi & Rhimi Johnson Page as Wangarra

    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.

    Sal making friends

    Making music – Trevor Jamieson and Iain Grandage

    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.

    Confrontation escalates

    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.

    Jeremy Sims as Smasher Sullivan – one of the eccentric Hawkesbury River survivalists

    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.

    Knowledge transferred by way of the children

    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.

    Sal is aided in her illness

    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.

    Colin Moody as Thomas Blackwood (secretly married)

    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.

    Trouble stirring

    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)

    It’s starting to get nasty

    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?

    This photo off the net reminded me of something!

    (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?


    Posted by James Waites @ 12:40 pm

14 Responses

  • Mike Says:

    on your recommendation, I’ll definitely see it!

  • James Waites Says:

    I loved watching it – I am in a tiz writing about it – ask around – you have very refined tastes – this is mainstream Sydney theatre (admittedly at its best).

  • Rebecca Says:

    This is a terrific blog James. It was a very important novelat his production is an equally significant contribution to the discourse of our histor. It is a profound, moving and brilliantly rendered production. What you have written expresses it perfectly. I’m very glad it is tourin to Perth and Canberra and hope it gets to tour internationally.

  • James Waites Says:

    I have actually done a major re-write the day after first posting. I was writing against my instincts – published I immediately saw the flaw. Plus some perspicacious nudges from Sarah Miller. I have swallowed my pride, freely admitting that in parts of the post I was way off course. So I apologise to anyone who read the first version – I do hope my second attempt sits better. It does for me. Reviewing, as much playwriting or acting, an exercise in make believe. I hope this second effort is more convincing. I certainly think it returns to Andrew Bovell the respect his script deserves.

  • sarah Says:

    Hey James – how lovely of you to mention me. Great to read this again, and I really like the much more complex lineage of Indigenous theatre / story telling, and the serious engagement of non Indigenous directors, writers and I would add producers (thinking Wendy Blacklock with Bob Mazza and Jack Davis going back to the early 80s), the work of Andrew Ross and early Black Swan not to mention Yirra Yaakin in Perth from the early nineties as well as Wesley’s work in a range of contexts. Andrish St Clare working with the Gija people in the NW Kimberley, and Rachael Swain, Dalisa Pigram and Marrugeku etc. Amazing really that the world hasn’t changed more – paid more attention. Great that the secret river has sold out in Sydney and will be touring. In a world of Obeids and Pynes (QandA is on) thank the deity of your choice for the theatre makers! Thanks again for such a comprehensive overview sxx

  • James Waites Says:

    I forgot it was Q&A Night – in such a week! I was listening/watching a production of The Masked Ball at the Met with Pavarotti in advance of my La Fura dels Baus version tomorrow night. Thank you for adding more names to the list of Aboriginal Australians making great theatre in this country and some of the whitfellas helping out. And we both know there are many more.This was an important piece for me to get right (how else can I contribute?) I really did appreciate the nudge – yes I’d cut the lineage which I put back. But your comments on language were what really helped me. I knew then for sure what had been bothering me for days – that I was way off-course in regards to the ‘unga-bunga’ and the more I tried to justify my position the messier and more tendentious it got. So thanks again for turning me round and pointing me in the right direction. The rest was just typing. xxxj

  • epistemysics Says:

    “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.”

    Let’s play a game of hypotheticals. You’ve got two versions of The Secret River. The first is the one we saw, with the ‘structureless mob’ of the Aboriginal characters and the points being made by the production. The second is a play where the audience understands what all the characters are saying, so that the mob has a bit more ‘structure’, and the viewpoint isn’t so centred on the Thornhill family.

    Which would make for a better play? Obviously we’ll never know, but I’d lean towards the latter. Then again, I’m fully aware of the bias I often have against theatre that tries to make a point. (Not that I think the point in this production wasn’t worthwhile, of course. And I’m not entirely certain that the second version of the play would be completely lacking in point-making either, but it wouldn’t be as pronounced.)

    I guess my concern is that I want the play to be as good as possible, yet I think it hamstrung itself on purpose. (Andrew Upton, for instance, in the opening night speech, said “theatre is the best artform for presenting multiple perspectives”…)

    Still a rather good night out, though. Perhaps I’m just a whitefella getting his back up.

  • James Waites Says:

    You make a very good point – one which I struggled with. The optimum solution politically is to give the ‘First Australians” fluent English and the ‘Arrivalists’ (as I’ve taken to call them), some form of impenetrable ‘unga bunga’. If the Aboriginal youth can wear boardies why can’t he speak our lingo. I don’t want to punish anyone for the decisions they’ve made in the making of this fine work. But I do think it’s a great opportunity to explore some of the treacherous cultural terrain. This is one production I wish Melbourne was seeing. I’d love Alison Croggon’s lost tribe of commentators to sink their teeth into this one.

  • Andrew Bovell Says:

    The approach to language was the central dramaturgical question of the work. All options were considered, explored and tried both on the page and on the floor. For instance, what happens if the point of view is changed at some point during the play and the Dharug start speaking English and the English start speaking “unga bunga” (as you call it, James)? Or indeed if the point of view is changed even in mid-scene, as was tried. The whole axis of the work shifted at these points in interesting ways. But it also seemed to us that the point was too heavily made by doing this. The politics of the work became obvious, the thinking behind the work was made too explicit and the spell of the story telling was somehow broken. The effect of the device was to distance the audience from the emotional content of the drama. A Brechtian approach may have favoured this distancing. But it wasn’t the approach of this production.

    We made a decision, informed by Richard Green and the indigenous members of the company to allow the Dharug language to speak for itself rather than have it explained by the use of sur-titles or theatrical conceits designed for the benefit of the predominantly white audience.

    Dharug is a living language that was lost and then re-found, re-built and re-claimed. In the context of a work like Secret River, it has a place on our main stage as we grapple to tell our national story.

    But in telling that story we chose to retain the central approach of the book… that this is primarily a story about the white experience told through the point of view of the central white character, William Thornhill. Wesley Enoch and others have made the point that Secret River is not an indigenous story. And Stephen Page made it very clear to me at the start of this journey that nor should it be because an aboriginal perspective on a massacre story would be very different to the one conveyed here. And that story should and is being told by the descendants of the people directly affected. To put English (the language of the conquerer) into the mouths of these characters seemed to be too great a claim on that story, too great an imposition on their experience. Out of respect a certain distance needed to be maintained and that was largely achieved through the character of Dhirrumbin, the narrator.

  • Andrew Bovell Says:

    I’d also like to respond to the proposition of the “structureless mob”. Whilst it was important not to impose a European notion of the nuclear family onto the Dharug, whose kinship relationships extend beyond that, I’d argue that the familial relationships within this group are made explicit in the spoken language and are implicit in the action of the scenes. In fact Neil and the actors worked hard in creating the physicality of the scenes to convey these relationships. Family structure is conveyed for example when Ngalamalum and Gillyagan chastise the boys for mucking about, when Ngalamalum teaches the boys how to make fire, when Gillyagan calls the boys back to camp for dinner as Sal calls her own boys back for the same reason and it is conveyed in the boys’ (black and white) protestations of having to end their game. Or when Yalamundi lays down a kangaroo skin for his wife, Buryia to sit on or when he defers to her on the question of whether they should accept the offer of a bag of flour from Thornhill. These people are husbands and wives, sisters, children, fathers, mothers, aunties and uncles. It is clear that they care for and about each other. But there is also conflict between them. Ngalamulum consistently argues with Yalamundi about how to respond to these intruders. Ngalamalum favours a more aggressive response whilst Yalamundi counsels a wait and see approach in the believe that the intruders will eventually move on. In fact these are the very same arguments being played out in the white community. But yes, they are being made in a language that you don’t understand. But it’s a mistake, isn’t it, to assume just because you don’t understand the language that what is being said doesn’t have meaning or intent or purpose or structure?

    I wonder if they were simply a “structureless mob” whether the mostly white, English-speaking audience would feel as emotionally devastated as they do at the end of the play. Don’t we feel that because we have seen these people laugh, dance, sing, play, eat, talk, argue, hunt, cook, love and so on just as we have seen the other mob on the other side of the point do. Here the play concerns itself not so much with cultural difference which is obvious and known but in the experience of being human, just how similar we were. And in that lies the heart of the tragedy.

    Thanks for the opportunity to respond.

  • James Waites Says:

    Dear Andrew,

    thank you so much for you two excellent comments. I do hope you know that I put a post up one day and reading it on the site made it more than obvious to me that I had got myself into a terrible tangled web of an invalid argument. Particularly about language, views that I didn’t even truly believe myself. I had broken the one major rule of a critic which is to listen only to my own inner voice, sand closely. In this instance I had an argument put to me by someone I believed knows more about this subject than I do. And that it was taking days to get this argument right should have alerted me to the fact that I had entered the wrong wormhole.

    The next day I took the post down and rewrote it from top to bottom sourcing from my own heart and mind. I did not have to change some of the paragraphs, butI felt it was important to admit fair and square I had got it wrong. Your comments suggest you are responding to the first version – I hope. Because it was the pars referring to ‘language’ and ‘family’.

    If are responding to the first version I would appreciate you taking a look at the new version now posted. It indicates that in my view you ab=nd the team had come to all the right decisions. Any other options referred to like swapping language around are merely fanciful and speculative – and include merely to cultivate further thought on a very complex set of challenges.

    If your comments are in response to the revised post than I dont think there is anything more I can do at this stage. I standd by this version – which I think has removed both the key faults in my first version. The views you take to task. I think it show that I support the decisions you and the team made. This story is told in the book and on stage from the perspective of William Thornhill and any somewhat derogatory terms l use like ‘unga bunga’ and,’structureless mob’ can only be justified if one accepts one is viewing the story essentially from Thornhill’s eyes. Not the writer’s, not the director’s, not the actors’ – and finally not the audience (including the critic).

    Please let me know which version of the post you are responding to. It makes a big difference if, in my second version, I failed to address the errors in the first version successfully. If any good has come from this it is your two posts. You are noticeably silent in the program notes – which actually I think was a smart move by you. Let the work speak for itself.

  • epistemysics Says:

    Of course, what I continually forget when talking about the hypotheticals is that The Secret River was a book originally, and the play is an adaptation of it, and so there are some built-in limits with regards to that. (Although I did mention it in my review, from memory.)

    So when I hear the arguments against another version of this production, I know that I really can’t respond with anything valid: if we take faithfulness to the source as granted, then I think the production as we have it is the optimum one. To complain about it would be moving the goalposts.

    Yet I still have the same reservations. In my second hypothetical, what I think I didn’t quite make clear was that I didn’t mean just for there to be surtitles (or whatever other device) so that the audience understood every word that is spoken in the original production, but that along with the surtitles/etc, and because of the deeper and more complex freedoms that those surtitles/etc might allow, the play itself would be a different play altogether. (Perhaps different dialogue, different scenes, and so on.)

    But is there anyone I could fairly blame for the play not ending up like that? No. Well, perhaps the author of the book, but if I did that, then it bypasses the play entirely.

    Do I blame the artistic directors, then? The theatre culture of Sydney itself? Do I scream at the heavens? (Okay – getting a tad too dramatic, now.)

    So what on Earth am I criticising? A critic always has to be careful about whether he’s judging a play as itself, or judging it by what he thinks it could have been… And I don’t think I’ve ever resolved that tension within myself. (So, Andrew, I fully admit that all my reservations fall into the latter category.)

    I can’t remember the quote, but someone somewhere sometime said something about a good critic being able to see what’s missing in the theatre of their time (I think it was in relation to Kenneth Tynan). I see what I think is a missed opportunity, and I’m yearning for something which would fill that gap.

    But I’m young, and nothing is sacred to me, so perhaps this is all just the petty misgivings of a youth who hasn’t quenched his rebel-reflex yet.

  • James Waites Says:

    All contributions valued Episto – readers here are a very lazy lot compared to Melbourne. Sometimes i wish someone would just dt=rop in with a ‘read yr review thought it was crap!’. At least I’d know anyone was reading me.

  • simbo Says:

    I find the debate on this one fascinating – It’s a pity I’m going to miss this (I live in canberra and the production here has been sold out for weeks already – it’d be fascinating for anybody who’s seen it in Sydney and is going to see it in Canberra again to discuss how the production changes in the more intimate Playhouse as compared to the slightly cavernous Sydney Theatre…)

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