Theatre review: The Secret River, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

FROM the imperial dreams of Peer Gynt, to the tragically timely glimpse of emerging American white supremacism in Dael Orlandersmith’s Until The Flood, this year’s Festival and Fringe is full of stories of colonialism, of the attitudes it spawns, and the huge human and environmental damage that often follows in its wake.
Sydney Theatre Company's The Secret River PIC: Heidrun LöhrSydney Theatre Company's The Secret River PIC: Heidrun Löhr
Sydney Theatre Company's The Secret River PIC: Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review: The Secret River, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh *****

It’s unlikely, though, that any show in Edinburgh this year will confront these themes more directly, or bring them together with more power, than the Sydney Theatre Company’s mighty Australian epic The Secret River, based on the best-selling novel by Kate Grenville, adapted by Andrew Bovell and directed by Neil Armfield, in association with Stephen Page of the Bangarra Dance Company.

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In outline, the show tells the story of a convict called William Thornhill, who arrives in New South Wales in 1806 with his wife Sal and two young sons, works hard to win his freedom, and eventually “takes up land” on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney.

The staging of the production, though – on a big stage dominated by towering rocks, bush and gum-trees – makes it absolutely clear that the land William occupies is not empty; throughout the show, the aboriginal tribes and families of the area are ever-present, watching, growing angrier and creating much of the sound and music that shapes and reflects the Thornhills’ new life.

Nathaniel Dean and Georgia Adamson turn in flawless performances as Thornhill and Sal, working-class people grasping at a chance of property and status, as does Ningali Lawford-Wolf as storyteller and narrator, at the heart of a magnificent

20-strong ensemble.

And if the final confrontation, when it comes, is as horrifying and predictable as the outcome, both story and production finally compel us to feel both the full human impact of the terrible genocide faced by native Australians, and the hideous mark it left on the culture of the colonisers: a legacy of lies, silence, and patriarchal violence that Sal Thornhill mourns in her last words to us, as she turns away from the future of possible peaceful co-existence she once glimpsed, towards the reality of a new world founded on injustice, theft and blood. - Joyce McMillan

Until 10 August. Today 7:30pm