Adelaide festival opens with spectacular outdoor restaging of The Secret River

From the towering stone backdrop to the flitting dragonflies at sunset, the tragic story of European invasion is heightened by the elements

The abandoned Anstey Hill quarry is one of several staggering formations that tower over Tea Tree Gully in the Adelaide foothills. The quarry, which operated until 1980, lies about 30 minutes from Adelaide’s city centre on the land of the Kaurna people, an Indigenous group almost completely eradicated by the European occupation of South Australia in 1836.

And on Thursday evening, as the sun began to set and cold wind blew through the gully, it became a silent character and an awe-inspiring backdrop to Adelaide festival’s opening event: a restaging of Neil Armfield’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s acclaimed 2005 novel The Secret River.

The Helpmann award-winning production, which premiered for Sydney Theatre company in 2013, tells the story of settlement from the perspective of poor convict William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean), his wife Sal (Georgia Adamson) and their two sons, by way of the all-seeing narration of Ningali Lawford-Wolf, who plays Dhirrumbin. It’s 1813 and Thornhill has earned his freedom in Sydney, and travels up the Hawkesbury river to find 100 acres to build a life upon.

As his family grapple with the land and becomes increasingly aware of the Indigenous family already living upon it, the arrogance with which Thornhill decides the place is his – dismissing or ignoring all evidence to the contrary – escalates into a violent tragedy, with innumerable consequences.

Jaydan Bush, Stephen Goldsmith, Dylan Miller in The Secret River, which is being performed at Adelaide Festival 2017
Jaydan Bush, Stephen Goldsmith and Dylan Miller perform in The Secret River in the natural amphitheatre of Anstey Hill quarry. Photograph: Shane Reid

Told outdoors and on country, the story and its consequences weighed heavy for the opening night audience: the lives shed in the bloody battle between an ancient culture that owned the land and the invaders who had no right to it.

Music carries the play’s emotional heft, and in the windy outdoors it washed through the natural amphitheatre with hardly a glitch. Multi-instrumentalist and composer Iain Grandage underscored the action with sensitivity and humour, and the mournful, moving Indigenous song which opened and closed the play – sung first by elder Yalamundi (Stephen Goldsmith), and later by the sole Indigenous survivor Ngalamalum (Shaka Cook) – bounced off the quarry stone, resonating long after the play had ended.

Armfield is in his inaugural year as co-director of Adelaide festival with Rachel Healy, and adapted the text for the stage with playwright Andrew Bovell and artistic associate Stephen Page. At Sydney Theatre Company, the backdrop by Stephen Curtis was a stunning, all-encompassing cloth painting of a eucalyptus tree that surrounded the players in the bush. At the opening night party following the premiere, Armfield laughed that Curtis had to do away with “what some people had said was the most beautiful set he had ever designed ... and it’s hard to say, but it was maybe upstaged by the beautiful, natural formation of the quarry”.

In fact, the inventive staging was occasionally dwarfed by the quarry itself: the majesty of the stone and clay, and the wind through the trees; the dragonflies that swept across the stage as the sun set and the lighting took over. But the emotional climax was heightened by the outdoors, too. Before intermission, the Thornhills gather in a moment of nostalgia, singing London Bridge is Falling Down to remind them of home. Soon, unknowingly, they are being circled by the Indigenous family who sing their own song in Dharug.

Nathaniel Dean, Ningali Lawford Wolf, Stephen Goldsmith - 0337 - Pic credit Shane Reid
Nathaniel Dean, Ningali Lawford-Wolf and Stephen Goldsmith. Photograph: Shane Reid

If the Thornhills think this land is theirs, the shadows thrown across the quarry told a different story: it is the traditional owners whose forms danced across the stone – towering, enormous, the size of the land itself – as the two songs swelled together in counterpoint.

The festival’s opening celebrations continue this weekend with Barrie Kosky’s return to Adelaide festival for his anticipated production of Saul, Schaubühne Berlin’s dark, contemporary and German-language take on Richard III, Adelaide writers’ week opening events, and a Neil Finn concert on the revived floating venue the Riverbank Palais.


Steph Harmon

The GuardianTramp

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