Tuesday 13 August 2019

EIF 2019 - The Secret River, or, Under Very Challenging Circumstances

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 10th August 2019.

A pre-curtain announcement from director Neil Armfield hinted that the run of this production was continuing under challenging circumstances, but it was only the result of a conversation afterwards with a relative that I learnt just how challenging. Frankly, it is astonishing that the rest of the cast are managing to continue under those circumstances and the remarks that follow must be presaged by an acknowledgement that we were lucky to see the show at all, and a sincere hope for the recovery of Ningali Lawford-Wolf.

To turn then to the show itself. I haven't read Kate Grenville's novel, so I can't comment on how Andrew Bovell's adaptation compares. We follow the fortune of now pardoned convict William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) and his wife Sal (Georgia Adamson) as they attempt to occupy a hundred acres of land on the Hawkesbury River in colonial New South Wales. Thornhill attempts to convince himself that the land is virgin, that they are entitled to take possession. His wife, still longing for a return to her native London (evocatively conjured in text and, at moments in staging) is much more sceptical. The story focuses on exposing the fallacy of Thornhill's claim. We find his family at first alongside the First Nation people who have inhabited the area for far longer, and watch as tensions mount to inevitable violence.

The ensemble is overall a strong one. Both Thornhills are compelling. I was especially struck by Adamson who has that ability to use stillness that I prize very highly - though she also benefits from the fact that the narration much less often insists on telling us what she is thinking. The Dharug family are finely portrayed across the board. I was less convinced by the various other convicts who are a bit underdrawn by the script and sometimes verge on caricatures.

On a spare set, designed by Stephen Curtis, there are a number of arresting moments of movement and visual images. The aboriginal dance, the purpose of which is not fully established, is one such, but the most striking to me was the use of blown white powder to stimulate gunshots - somehow more telling than a lot of explosions.

But there are weaknesses. An over reliance on descriptive narration has been a feature of a number of plays I've seen in recent times. The only one that really made it work was The Lehman Trilogy. In this case it may be that my experience was affected by the fact that it is having to be delivered (I think) by the Dialect and Vocal coach Charmian Gardwell and of course I was grateful to her for doing so that there might be a performance at all. But notwithstanding that I often found the narration intrusive - removing space for me to form my own views about the motivations and feelings of characters, stopping other performances from speaking for themselves. I also think that the outcome of the plot is made too obvious from the beginning - there's a lack of suspense which, for me, reduced the impact. There's a link here to overall pacing. At nearly three hours this is a long show and it felt it. Now here I admit that I'm quite tired at the moment and that may have affected my reaction but I did feel that some sections dragged and the tension didn't sufficiently build.

A further issue is Iain Grandage's intrusive and at times overblown score. A good instance of the issues this poses is in the climactic confrontation which starts with those visually striking gunshots but goes on and gets very loud to, I thought, no good effect. As with the narration the score wants to push reactions in certain directions, and again it irritated me.

A decision has also been made not to translate any of the Dharug text - and there's rather a lot of it. Again this seems to be an approach that is becoming more common. This does mean that when, at the very end, the surviving Ngalamalum utters a single word of English it's an enormously powerful moment. And I can see that the production was really trying to recreate the sheer incomprehension of most of the settlers towards the Dharug. But I'm not convinced that simply providing subtitles for their speech would prevent that point from being made, and the consequence of not doing so in places weakened rather than heightened my empathy towards the characters. Perhaps intentional, but at least I think open to question.

Overall, I was interested (and under the circumstances very grateful) to have seen this, but it didn't finally move me the way, for example, the conclusion of the most recent production of Our Country's Good (a play with some thematic overlap) did. Worth catching when it moves to the National in September, but not without flaws.

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