"Blackfellas saw them coming up the coast and didn't know what the bloody hell they were … Even when they got here, blackfellas thought they were possums running up and down the masts … We had no idea if they were men or women."
That's Allen Madden, Gadigal elder of the Eora tribe, describing his ancestors' first sight of European settlers in Warrane – probably not all that far from where the Sydney Theatre stands today.
Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Secret River, now showing at that theatre, tells a formative chapter in Australia's relationship with its Indigenous people, without ever letting the audience feel like it's written in past tense. Through the story of William Thornhill, an ex-convict building a new life for his family on land occupied by the Dharug people, it powerfully conveys the strangeness of blacks and whites making first contact in Australia – and the horror it set in motion. It's a story that early on assumes the shape of a tragedy – we know, don't we, what happens at the end – where redemption feels agonisingly near, right up until the stomach-churning plummet towards disaster.
Putting Kate Grenville's novel The Secret River on stage was a tremendous undertaking, demanding an alignment of the biggest and boldest vision and theatrical talent in the country. That alignment – in the work of adapter Andrew Bovell, director Neil Armfield, composer Iain Grandage, and the entire cast, crew and creative team – is evident in every aspect of this production.
It is (as the promotional material earnestly promised) a landmark theatrical event in the history of the Sydney Theatre Company – a show destined to go down as one of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton's major contributions to Australia and Australian theatre. The ephemeral nature of the art form is often talked about, but an instant modern classic, as The Secret River is, is the closest contemporary theatre gets to providing a lasting monument to be beheld by future generations. It's going to stick around, and not just in the memories of those who get to experience it.
But, with the Sydney season justifiably almost sold out, and hyperbole beckoning ever closer, how best a reviewer spend his syllables?
Perhaps with a petition.
The Secret River has 'international tour' written all over it. It's deserving of that. But what is much, much, much more important – and I feel it's the responsibility of the theatre community to collectively insist, demand it – is that the Sydney Theatre Company brings the production to other Australian capital cities and rural centres. The gargantuan set isn't necessary; the story is – it's a story that needs to be told to as many Australians as possible, not just those buying festival tickets in Sydney.
With the production already travelling to Canberra and Perth, an extended national tour would be a beautiful way to perpetuate the remarkable achievement of this inspiring production (and the show will visit Perth and Canberra), and a significant step towards…
Well, Allen Madden says it best:
"We know we can't change things that happened back then but you have to know where you've been to know where you're going. Aboriginal people have never wanted sympathy. All we ever wanted was understanding."