(Dir. Neil Armfield) (Anstey Quarry, 12 March 2017)[Memo to the traditional custodians: “How annoying, when you’ve got the place looking right, some great floating vector retches into view, bone in her teeth, lusting for dry land and croaking with violent anticipation. White folks revise and revise; you, in your pleasant way, make no objection. Naturally, the latecomers take it for granted that you know your place in this new world.”]
This is the scenario of imperialism and it has played out (variably) on every inhabited continent from time immemorial. It is a powerful but overworked theme. In the capable hands of Kate Grenville, it made a lovely novel (2005). As adapted by Andrew Bovell and produced by the Sydney Theatre Company, it was violently overpraised by people who (bless ’em) have probably never heard of, let alone read, The Invention of Terra Nullius by Michael Connor.
What shine in this production are direction and design. Hats off to whoever suggested the Anstey Hill Quarry, in Tea Tree Gully, north of Adelaide: it is a brilliant setting, providing a natural backdrop to this bijou tale of transported settlers carving out farmland, their interaction with the local indigenous people, and the havoc wreaked among them when violence erupts. As the rain thankfully subsided* and the sunlight faded, clever and effective (but restrained) use of lighting, and superb musical accompaniment from virtual one-man-band Iain Grandage, created powerful and vivid colours and atmosphere, lit also from afar temporarily by a full moon. Gorgeous directorial touches revealed the deft hand of Mr. Armfield – white and black lads fool about with a home-made water slide; the advancing men blow puffs of dust to represent the firing of muskets; ropes are twirled en masse to suggest cultivation or bush construction; the settlers huddle in a small lit square to portray a gathering in William Thornhill’s hut. The violence is presented without undue flourish (although the settlers advancing in formation, singing “London Bridge is Falling Down” reminded us of a scene from Full Metal Jacket). The aboriginal men and women enter and depart magisterially. The finding, and losing, of common ground between the locals and the visitors are done with wit and compassion.
The performances were adequate but overripe on occasion. Wisely, as much of the story is internal, a narrator was invented (Dhirrumbi). This performance (by Ningali Lawford Wolf) was outstanding. There was a modest amount of needless repetition. Some characters strayed into archetypes. The ‘flashback moments’ failed to convince – in fact, they were a little cringe-worthy, something you might see staged by ‘Legs Akimbo.’ But mostly pain was avoided. We feared being lectured and hectored. The Secret River avoided that.[*The Varnished Culture took their cheap plastic ponchos to keep out the drizzle, and sat there like Kath, Kel and friends at the Boz Scaggs concert.]