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‘They needed a voice. They needed language. We assumed that there wasn’t one available to us.’

A sold-out hit when it premiered in 2013, The Secret River is a stirring adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel, one of the most important Australian novels of the century. It returned to the stage in 2016, and now plays for twelve performances at the Edinburgh International Festival. Winner of six Helpmann Awards, including Best Play, Best Direction and Best New Australian Work, it was heralded as 'a stunning, shattering piece of theatre that goes to the heart of our history' by The Sunday Telegraph.

From 1788 to 1868 Britain transported more than 160,000 convicts from its overcrowded prisons to the Australian colonies, forming the basis of the first migration from Europe to Australia. The land they arrived in was not empty as expected, and they were outnumbered by more than 500,000 indigenous Aboriginal people whose ancestors had lived in Australia for at least 50,000 years. Conflict erupted on the frontier, as white settlement escalated, and the Indigenous inhabitants resisted colonisation and defended their territory and resources. Australia is littered with sites of these battles and of massacres.

The Secret River is a story of two families divided by culture and land. William Thornhill arrives in New South Wales a convict from the slums of London. His family’s new home offers him something he hadn’t dared dream of: a place to call his own. On the banks of the Hawkesbury River, he plants a crop and lays claim to the soil. But the land is not his to take. It is home to a family from the Dharug people. As Thornhill’s attachment to the land deepens, so too does his determination to ignore the glaring contradictions that surround him. He makes a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

The novel’s author, Kate Grenville, began writing in an attempt to trace the history of her convict great-great-great-grandfather Solomon Wiseman. It led to an intense period of historical research, where she discovered the dark history of the early settlers.

Kate Grenville: I think many Australians feel a deep need to try to understand our past, especially the story of black/white interaction on the frontier. It’s not an easy history to acknowledge, and a story that puts a human face to it opens the door to understanding. This is a story about people – black and white – making hard choices.

The act of writing a novel is a solitary pursuit, but theatre is a collaborative medium, and the process of adaptation means a breaking of new ground.

KG: Knowing that your own imagination has sparked off other people’s creative thinking is incredibly exciting. When I saw the first performance, I was overwhelmed with admiration for what the team behind the play had achieved. The play is far more than an adaptation – it’s an astonishing feat of creative re-imagining. Without losing anything of the meaning of the original, the play adds dimensions a novel can only gesture towards. The collaboration with Aboriginal creative artists takes the story into a new realm of emotional power and honesty. I feel honoured that the book has been the starting point for such a magnificent play.

The stage adaptation differs from the source material in several important ways. While the Dharug people in the novel are distant and unknowable, they take a far more active role in the play, and the creative team felt a responsibility to handle the issue sensitively.

Playwright Andrew Bovell reflects: Building the Dharug presence in the play was fundamental to our approach. Grenville chose to keep the Dharug characters at a distance, only seen through Thornhill’s and the other white characters’ eyes and their actions and motivations are explained through the white characters comprehension and often misinterpretation of them. In part, Kate chose to do this for cultural reasons. She felt there was a line that as a white writer she couldn’t cross. We didn’t have that choice. It’s an obvious point to make but in transforming words on a page into live action on a stage we rely on the work of actors. And we simply couldn’t have silent black actors on stage being described from a distance. They needed a voice. They needed an attitude. They needed a point of view. They needed language. We assumed that there wasn’t one available to us. We thought that the languages spoken around the Hawkesbury had largely been lost. For a while it seemed like an insurmountable problem. And then Richard Green, an actor and Dharug man, joined the project. We put the problem to him. He laughed and opened his mouth and spoke and sang in Dharug. It was, he argued passionately, a lie that the language didn’t exist. If it had been lost it had now been re-found, rebuilt and reclaimed. It was a living language. And no white academic was going to tell Richard that he had no language. He enlivened the rehearsal room with his presence and gave us the confidence to find the voices for the Dharug characters. He translated the language and made it fit the needs of the production and he taught the ensemble how to speak it and sing it.

The creative team, grappling with such a formative, yet shameful period of Australia’s history, felt the weight of history upon them, but also a fierce need to address the still-raw wounds inflicted by the first European settlers upon the Indigenous peoples.

The play’s director Neil Armfield comments: The Secret River is a difficult story to tell. For all the beauty, dignity and depth of this tale, it leads relentlessly into dark places. It takes us back to a moment in our country’s narrative when a different outcome, a different history, was possible. Or, at least, imaginable. Where those who came might have listened and learnt from those who were here, might have found a way of living here on this land with respect and humility. Instead, enabled by gunpowder and fed by ignorance, greed and fear, a terrible choice was made. It is a choice that has shaped the present. Nine generations later, we are all living its consequences. The lucky country is blighted by an inheritance of rage and of guilt, denial and silence. Imagine how hard it is for our actors, who draw strength and humanity from their Indigenous elders and family, to tell this story. And to keep on telling this story.

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