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The ghost of the original work is always present to haunt an adaptation. Based on Kate Grenville’s award-winning and controversial novel, Andrew Bovell’s adaptation for the stage not only embraces that ghost but extends its reach. Going straight to the heart of the novel’s predicament—the desire for a better life that drives pardoned convict William Thornhill to settle his family on land already occupied by a family of Dharug people—Bovell’s version of The Secret River brings Australia’s founding predicament into full and immediate life for a contemporary audience.
Innovative and courageous, Bovell’s vision of The Secret River is shaped as much by the inclusion of the voices, insight and expertise of modern Aboriginal actors and associates as by the original fictional work. Both white and black characters are revealed with all their strengths and frailties. In witnessing the stumbling dance of their daily interactions through the barriers of language and culture, we become party to the often brutalized and themselves displaced white settlers’ struggle to own and belong to a place of their own; equally, we understand the profound tragedy of the Dharug people who are displaced then decimated by settlement. Bovell’s adaptation addresses a deep need for Australians to understand our uneasy past, through a summoning up and enlivening of the fragments and silences that have contributed to our unreconciled present.
This brilliantly focused yet expansive work provides a necessary and provocative window into the traumatic experience of this nation’s original inhabitants through their interaction with the first wave of European settlement. As compelling as it is deeply discomforting, Bovell’s The Secret River examines how the notion of Australia as ‘the land of opportunity’ has served to obscure the individual decisions that forged our early history into a moral landscape characterized by violence and dispossession. In the aftermath of a massacre of the Dharug people, the closing image of William Thornhill giving his old jacket to the now broken elder Ngalamalum, while ordering him to move on, is as relevant now as it has ever been. A profound and moving reconsideration of our country’s history, this play has all the qualities of a classic and indispensible addition to the Australian literary landscape.