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03.07.2014
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Based on the recommendation by Un-lic-ed, I suggested to my book club that we read The Secret River when it was my turn to host the discussion in February. To give my friends a taste of Down Under, I served some Melba toast with cheese and precious imported vegemite, veggie cottage pie, damper, and some mini pavlovas for dessert.
We began the discussion by contrasting the world-view of hunter-gatherers versus agriculturalists. This discussion also brought up stories of the Irish Travellers (also known as Minceir or Pavees, or an Lucht Siuil), with some members of the club demonstrating their knowledge and fluency in Irish. We decided that owning land was so important to William because in England, it is this characteristic that distinguishes the gentry from the commoners. The group was divided over whether or not Sal and William were happy with their lot in the end. In 1806 William Thornhill, an illiterate English bargeman and a man of quick temper but deep compassion, steals a load of wood and, as a part of his lenient sentence, is deported, along with his beloved wife, Sal, to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia.
William Thornhill, an illiterate Thames bargeman and a man of quick temper but deep feelings, steals a load of timber and is transported to New South Wales in 1806.
Some of his neighbours - Smasher Sullivan, Sagitty Birtles - regard the Darug as hardly human, savages with as little right to land as a dog. The Lieutenant, the second book of the trilogy, is set two decades earlier, when the first colonists arrived in New South Wales.
Searching for the Secret River is a memoir of the process of researching and writing The Secret River. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin prize. As well as Australasia, it has been published in the UK, Canada and the US, and in translation in France, Spain, Slovenia, Germany, Israel, Taiwan, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, the People's Republic of China, Norway and Portugal. In the last scene of Act 1 of Sydney Theatre Company's The Secret River, the freed English convict William Thornhill sits with his family and white settler acquaintances on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, solemnly gazing into the distant wilderness as they sing, with ambivalent nostalgia, a folk song from their native England. This portrayal of the perspectives of both Thornhill (and through him, the English settlers), as well as the Dharug people, is perhaps the most apparent change that writer Andrew Bovell (When the Rain Stops Falling, Speaking in Tongues) and director Neil Armfield (Summer of the Seventeenth Doll) made when adapting Kate Grenville's 2005 award-winning work of historical fiction. Indeed, Armfield and Bovell have explored the narrative scope of the theatrical form to a degree that is not commonly possible. Thornhill is already aware of the 'natives' in the area, but seeks to assuage Sal's fear by explaining that they are an explorative, nomadic people who will 'move on' soon enough. Productions of such a scale, such ambition, and such great talent as The Secret River are rarely undertaken. Hostess Melina Fahrenheit led the local burlesque community in a rousing celebration of love, devotion and tenderness just in time for Valentine’s Day.


Audience participation was the name of the game and the audience was enthusiastic – cheering, wolf-whistling and cat-calling all encouraged. In the spirit of audience participation, Ms Seker Pare performed a balloon-popping number with supreme sauciness and confidence, encouraging the front tables to grab at her goodies, and Ms Tiffany Blue whipped the audience into a frenzy with a delightful, high-energy striptease. The whole thing ran a little late for a Monday and the breaks between the sets were at times extensive, but as a showcase of local talent, a celebration of the raunchier side of St Valentine, and a chance to shout dreadful things at ladies on stage without being kicked out, it’s not to be missed. National Portrait Prize 2016: What Makes A Good Portrait?Viewing the National Portrait Prize exhibition raised important questions about photography and how we interpret images.
Win a double pass to Barbara Blackman's Festival Blessing (Canberra International Music Festival)! The damper was a bit of a disaster (over-salted and under-cooked), and no one else appreciated the vegemite, but the rest of the meal seemed to go down well, especially as it was accompanied by gifts of Australian wines, caramels, chips, and chocolates. A hunter-gatherer may have time for leisure when the season is right, but in early colonial Australia an agriculturalist must work from dawn to dust.
Nomaic people such as these often set up halting (caravan) sites on common lands or private plots. This seems laughable to us now, with our easy access to the world’s information at our fingertips, but for those that had spent their whole lives by the Thames, what else did they know?
Throughout the 20th century up to the 1970s, children were forcibly removed from their families by the church and the government. The Secret River is the tale of William and Sal’s deep love for their small, exotic corner of the new world, and William’s gradual realization that if he wants to make a home for his family, he must forcibly take the land from the people who came before him. Like many of the convicts, he's pardoned within a few years and settles on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Spears may be primitive weapons, but settlers know that they can kill a man as surely as a ball of lead from a musket. When the Darug object to being driven off, those settlers have no compunction in shooting or poisoning them. It shows how events from the historical record were used in the novel, where they were changed, and the reasons for these choices. As they sit, the Dharug Aboriginal people, on whose land they have chosen to settle, enter the stage as a group and walk slowly around them, themselves singing their own sombre folk song, equally as oblivious of the Thornhill as he is of them. The production was the first to be commissioned by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton upon their taking up the post of co-artistic directors at STC, and has been the company's largest and most ambitious project during their tenure. At their disposal was a creative team which included, among a large host of others, Artistic Associate Stephen Page (current Artistic Director of Bangarra Dance Theatre), Set Designer Stephen Curtis, and music director Iain Grandage, together with a 19-strong cast including Nathaniel Dean, Anita Hegh, Ursula Yovich (Australia, The Sapphires), Daniel Henshall (Snowtown), Trevor Jamieson, (Namitjira, Ngaparti-ngaparti), Judith McGrath (All Saints), Colin Moody, and Bruce Spence. Even the fidgety, anxious Sal befriends two of the Dharug women – played mischievously and entertainingly by Miranda Tapsell and Ethel-Anne Gundy.
The audience is transported to and immersed in a Hawkesbury which is truly on the frontier.


Ms Fahrenheit tottered about the stage in a gravity-defying corset, heckling the performers, harassing the stage kittens, nicking bubbly off the raffle winners and reading out progressively filthier declarations of love, lust and indifference from the delighted audience members. The coy Shark Bait and Miss Coco Lox kicked off the evening with an act set to Tainted Love, followed by Absalon Lacroix’s juggling act, which got even better when he got into the spirit of things and took his shirt off.
After Scarlett and the Wolf treated us to a Red Riding Hood-themed song, event organiser Ivy Ambrosia rounded out the set with a fan dance. A hunter-gatherer sees themselves and the land as one entity, and does not recognise fences or boundaries – if they were to take ears of corn from a field, they see their task as simply gathering food as they have done for 40 millennia. How do we reconcile the rights of those of us who believe that we own these particular squares of land with those who have been travelling freely for generations? Acclaimed around the world, The Secret River is a magnificent, transporting work of historical fiction. Perhaps the Governor grants him the land or perhaps he just takes it - the Hawkesbury is at the extreme edge of settlement at that time and normal rules don't apply. They haven't left fences or roads or houses, but they live on that land and use it, just as surely as Thornhill's planning to do.
In drawing back the curtain on the process of writing fiction, it's also a useful and, I hope, reassuring account of the sometimes uncertain process of writing a work of fiction. It is the most gripping, most powerful scene of the production, portraying with such great simplicity the tragic confrontation that will inevitably befall Thornhill's group and the Dharug people: two communities, two cultures, and two histories, all of which reflect so many shared values but which, although briefly acknowledged, are ultimately overpowered by fear, ignorance, and irreconcilable principles of land ownership.
Both believed Grenville's exploration of race relations between English settlers (mainly ex-convicts) and the Aboriginal people of the Hawkesbury River in the early 19th century was an important and compelling story to be adapted for theatre. Unfortunately, Thornhill also appreciates their shared sense of belonging to a piece of land. The Merry Macgregor Sisters did some genuinely impressive synchronised tassel twirling and Sapphire reprised her cheeky mermaid-themed number from Kitten of the Year, doing unspeakable things to a pearl. However, it wasn’t until 2008 that the government formally apologised for these actions. Yet to tell story only from Thornhill's perspective (as Grenville's novel does) would be, in Upton's words, 'a waste of the broader narrative scope of the theatrical form'. As it becomes apparent that neither side has any intention of 'moving on', he and the other settlers face the realisation that things cannot continue as they are. In Australia, the concept of terra nullius was not overturned until the Aboriginal rights case of Mabo in 1992.




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