A decorative pageant that would appeal to civic grandees: The Secret River reviewed

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

The Secret River opens in a fertile corner of New South Wales in the early 1800s. William, a cockney pauper transported to Australia for theft, receives a pardon from the governor and decides to plant a crop on 100 acres of Aboriginal land. His doting wife, Sal, begs him to take her and their young sons back to her beloved London. They make a deal. William must succeed as a farmer within five years or pay for their passage home.

He clashes with a tribe of spear-waving Aboriginals who make it clear that they want him off their ancestral turf. Neither side speaks the other’s language. ‘This is mine now. You lot can have the rest,’ says William, pointing vaguely at Australia. Enter Smasher Sullivan, a drunken cockney bully, who calls the Aboriginals ‘vermin’ and wants to recruit a local militia to evict them by force, first with whips, later with guns. William has to decide whether to join Smasher’s crew of murderous yobs or not. That’s the dramatic pivot of this slow-moving play which features half a dozen Aboriginal actors.

Andrew Bovell adapted the script from Kate Grenville’s prizewinning novel but the show relies too heavily on flimsy, easy-to-grasp characters. Nasty Smasher is a gobby racist who can’t stop shouting. Nice William is a solid, practical type but he’s distinctly robotic, like a lighthouse. Sal, his gushing wife, bustles around, hugging her husband affectionately, scolding the nippers and taking a cheeky tot of rum whenever she can.

Bizarrely, very few members of this Australian company can mimic a London accent. Nathaniel Dean (William) speaks in a weird, up-and-down Sydney-cockney hybrid that sounds neither English nor Australian. Many of his colleagues seem to have copied him. Very amateurish of the NT to overlook such a lapse. Has the dialogue coach been on holiday?

And despite the multi-ethnic cast, the show ignores the culture of the ‘savages’ as the cockneys call them. The speeches of the Aboriginals are left untranslated so we never discover their inner selves, nor do we learn what words they use to describe the pale-faced invaders. Most of the incidental music (marvellously done) is played on western instruments, cello, piano, guitar. Not a didgeridoo in sight. The atmosphere of the production is warm, relaxed and very inviting but it’s more of a decorative pageant than a gripping emotional drama. Aldermen, civic grandees and heads of state would enjoy it.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the acclaimed writer of scatty and disorganised comedies, uses a creaky old device to get his family drama, Appropriate, started. An elderly father has popped his clogs and the relatives show up at the house to pick over the relics and argue about cash. The first hour is almost unbearable as we meet various members of the Lafayette family who own a rotting mansion in the deep south. ‘We’re in Bumblefuck, Arkansas,’ says one.

Jacobs-Jenkins specialises in creating brittle, stroppy, self-centred misfits who can’t bear the sight of their fellow human beings. Here we get half a dozen of these obnoxious goons. Bitter Antoinette blames her brothers for neglecting their dad, who suffered from more than one mental illness. Beauregarde, a smooth New York type, can’t stop his prickly wife, Rachel, from locking horns with the venomous Antoinette. Poor dippy Frank has changed his name to Franz and hooked up with a braindead vegan spiritualist who calls herself River. ‘A walking rape fantasy,’ Antoinette terms her. Much of the dialogue consists of screamed invective.

The first act climaxes with the discovery of some photos of black men being lynched in the 1930s. Dad was a closet racist, it seems. But he was off his rocker as well, so it’s unclear whether the images were acquired by accident or design. The second act improves greatly because the characters stop bawling at each other and start to talk in conversational tones. The complexities of the plot settle down and the texture of the story becomes richer and more playful. Beauregarde discovers that the racist photos are worth a fortune. Should he flog them? Yes, say all the Lafayettes. No one questions the morality of selling sick curios to a far-right millionaire collector. But the photographs abruptly vanish and a comedy investigation ensues which culminates in a spectacular on-stage punch-up and a hilarious visual joke that reveals Dad’s true political sympathies.

By the close of the show, chippy Antoinette (Monica Dolan) has become a figure of stature and true suffering rather than a vituperative sourpuss. Steven Mackintosh manages to give Beauregarde unexpected depths and Tafline Steen reveals that River has more to her than New Age superficialities. It takes a while to get there but in the end the play shows traces of magic.

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