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Andrew Bovell’s adaptation transforms Kate Grenville’s landmark convict novel into an epic theatrical experience and offers an even deeper insight into the core conflict. The Secret River is the story of William Thornhill, who journeyed from the abject poverty of mid-18th century London, imprisoned and deported as a convict to his rise as an emancipist and landowner on the Hawkesbury River. It traces Thornhill’s moral choices through action and omission, taking the land he wants for his own standing as a free man.
Poignantly, Bovell opens the play with the voice of the river and a rich portrayal of the Dharug people. This deceivingly simple change from the novel reframes the central themes of ownership, belonging and violent conflict, enabling the audience to easily empathise and identify across cultural delineation, and points to the genius at the heart of this adaptation. The audience experiences Thornhill and his family as the recent arrivals they are. Yet the glimpses of his backstory in the dialogue provide plenty of substance to reveal Thornhill’s past and motivation. Handling the large cast with ease and finesse, condensing the essence of characters with light touch or bold stroke as needed, Bovell tightens the dramatic screws skilfully and relentlessly. This is an outstanding adaptation.