I wasn’t convinced about seeing The Secret River, and when the first lines uttered were in a form of Australian Aborigine I was ready to bound out of the Olivier Theatre like a kangaroo on out of date Fosters. But I stayed and got to see a phenomenal piece of work, writes Michael Holland.

The drama was heightened and, perhaps, made even more emotional than the subject already was by the fact that Ningali Lawford-Wolf, the Narrator, died suddenly during the play’s run in Edinburgh last week. Pauline Whyman was quickly flown over from Melbourne to learn and perform the role.

The Secret River, adapted from Kate Grenville’s novel, tells of two families divided by their cultures and land. It is a tough look back into Australia’s dark past – and Britain’s. 

Rotherhithe criminal William Thornhill is transported and takes his wife Sally and children along with him. After many years of hard work and showing his rehabilitation, William earns his pardon and hears that if he stakes a claim on a plot merely by calling it his own, then that land is his. But he finds that the land is not his to take; others live there and have done for millennia.

The area that Britain’s dregs tried to settle was a lawless place, where racism was rife and the indigenous people were treated no better than animals. Many had learnt to keep a buffer between them and the tribespeople with guns, whips and vicious dogs, although some long-term settlers had learnt that a little give and take was all it needed for everyone to live together in a kind of harmony.

The Thornhills were honest, hard-working folk who had believed the tales of free land and the chance to be someone, all of which they had never enjoyed in London. So he laid his rucksack down on the bend in the river and called the surrounding 100 acres Thornhill Creek.

Members of the local Dharug tribe soon come to investigate, spears at the ready, but the language barrier kept communication to a minimum. The Thornhills warily soldiered on and before long Dick Thornhill, William’s youngest, soon made friends with the Aboriginal children, playing freely as kids do. Next, the womenfolk came together to exchange food and clothes, and all this while the men ranted about ‘the blacks’ and ‘savages’ over glasses of rum. 

More prisoners arrived, though William, with an air of faux superiority, made an old friend address him as Mr Thornhill when he gave him work on his ‘property’. But any upward mobility was just in William’s head, as it was the convicts who were the savages, while the Dharug were majestic in how they carried and conducted themselves. Even in the face of lethal firepower that they could never overcome, they would never lose. Their dignity and honesty would see to that, even if it has taken centuries of rewriting and correcting history.

Notwithstanding almost every cast member having to produce an accent not their own, the Sydney Theatre Company has excelled itself here. The performances were tremendous. The set evoked a cruel outback, and the music and singing was just beautiful. Isaac Hayward’s one man band of instruments created such a sad and haunting atmosphere it was difficult not to get emotional at the play’s end.

As in the Britain of today, the sensible in The Secret River were led by fools into making foolish decisions that they would live with for the rest of their lives.

The Secret River is on the National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX until September 7th. Times: 7pm, 1pm matinees Thur & Sat. Admission: £15 – £89. Phone: 0207 452 3000.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk