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The Secret River | Photo: Heidrun Löhr The Secret River | Photo: Heidrun Löhr

Five reasons to see The Secret River

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An urgent, searing Australian story told by a world-renowned Australian theatre company. We give you five reasons why Sydney Theatre Company's The Secret River should be on your must-see list this August.

1. Sydney Theatre Company

Founded in 1978, Sydney Theatre Company is a major force in Australian theatre. The European premiere of The Secret River marks their first appearance in Scotland and their International Festival debut.

They’ve got a seriously impressive international track record of collaborators: Benedict Andrews, Michael Blakemore, Howard Davies, Declan Donnellan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Liv Ullmann, Steven Soderbergh and Tamás Ascher have all worked with the company in recent years, to name just a few. They've also launched and fostered the theatre careers of many of Australia's internationally renowned artists including Mel Gibson, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Toni Collette, Rose Byrne and Cate Blanchett.

These days, the company is dedicated to producing Australian works of ambition and scale, creating and sharing stories with artists and audiences that provide opportunities for reflection, revelation and joy.

2. An award-winning, five-star production

A sold-out hit when it premiered in 2013, The Secret River was heralded as 'a stunning, shattering piece of theatre that goes to the heart of our history' by The Sunday Telegraph, ‘one of the most brilliant and important plays Australia has ever produced’ by Arts Hub and won six Helpmann Awards - which celebrate the performing arts in Australia - including Best Play, Best Direction and Best New Australian Work.

Kate Grenville's The Secret River is widely considered to be one of the most important Australian novels of the 21st century. Drawing on her own family's history, it evoked a great sense of time and place and the meeting of two completely different cultures, and documented the early history of colonialism in Australia. Playwright Andrew Bovell's adaptation has transformed the novel into a deeply moving, unflinching journey into Australia’s dark history, charting the story of two families divided by culture and land.

3. A team of Aboriginal and Australian cast and creatives

This hauntingly poetic production was conceived in collaboration with Aboriginal artists and is performed in Dharug as well as English.

Stephen Page, Artistic Associate of The Secret River and Artistic Director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, talks us through what it means to the people of Australia to have created the work, and how art and storytelling can be used as a medicine to heal a nation.

4. The beautifully striking set

The set, richly imagined by Stephen Curtis, and centred around a towering eucalyptus tree, metres of cloth and a burning campfire, conjures an evocative visual impression of the Hawkesbury River and was described as ‘astonishingly beautiful to look at’ by Australia's Sun Herald.

Curtis was inspired by a line where one of the main characters describes the river as a church. The designer then took his lead from that to create a spiritual space full of light. 

‘The one particular idea that struck me very powerfully was when the white family arrive on the river, that they arrive as foreigners in that space and they kind of mess it up. I talked to Neil about the way in which the Thornhill’s could literally leave dirty footprints on the floor as they made their first steps into the world of the river.’ 

Curtis felt it was extremely important for the two families within the story to occupy the space equally at the same time, creating a sense of balance. His creation of the shared campfire helped to bring this into focus.

Costume designer Tess Schofield also felt it was really important to involve the actors in the creative process of developing their character. She worked closely with them to create costumes that would be appropriate for the complex and sensitive text, using the designs and textures to link the humanity with the landscape and link all of the human beings with each other in the world.

5. Live music by Iain Grandage

‘Grandage's exquisite music almost becomes another character and certainly heightens the sense of ritual’ Sydney Morning Herald

Iain Grandage is best-known for his compositions for theatre and dance having worked with nearly every major theatre company in Australia. He has an extensive track record of collaborating with indigenous artists from across Australia and is also a long-time collaborator with previous International Festival artist Meow Meow. 

Grandage drew inspiration from the book while writing the score, evoking a sound in his consciousness of traditional folk songs. During his composition process, he ‘tried to maintain forward momentum in the score, as Kate so beautifully does in her book, and Andrew Bovell does in his adaption.

Grandage went on to win two Helpmann Awards for Best Music Production and Best Music Score for his original music and work with the cast of The Secret River.


Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Secret River comes to the International Festival on 2-11 August 2019.

The Secret River © Ryan Buchanan

Book tickets for The Secret River

James Mc Ardle In Peter Gynt © Manuel Harlan 3

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