Halfway through watching a performance of the very wonderful The Secret River at the National Theatre last night I realised I had read the book from which the play is adapted. This meant I knew there was to be no happy ending, not even a small redemptive flicker of hope.
It tells the tale of a family from London, he a now pardoned convict who was sentenced to be transported to Australia, his wife Sal who chose to accompany him, and their two young sons. Now free, William Thornhill sees the possibilities for a man like himself in this new world. He can lay stake to some land, become a farmer. What he does not understand is that this same land belongs the ‘savages’ who already live there. He sees them as rootless, nomadic. As it says in the NT’s notes, “Upon earning his pardon he discovers that this new world offers something he didn’t dare dream of: a place to call his own. But as he plants a crop and lays claim to the soil on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, he finds that this land is not his to take. Its ancient custodians are the Dharug people.”
The truth slowly and painfully dawns. Thousands are being shipped from London to this New World, the conflict over the land is bound to continue. This will not end well.
Thornhill is not a bad man, though some of his neighbours undoubtedly are, but the difference between the two cultures is a bridge he finds impossible to cross. At first he witnesses things he would prefer not to have known. He thinks that not speaking of them may make them less real. And then he is an active participant in mass murder, joining his neighbours to wipe out the local aborigines to make the land ‘safe’ and stop Sal from leaving him. He is now fully compromised, fully colluding in the repression of fellow human beings.
Long Jack is the only Aborigine left on the land. Permanently disabled by a gunshot wound, he sits on Thornhill’s Point challenging William’s ownership of the land. A lasting reminder of Thornhill’s crime and the way he has achieved his position as a prosperous land owner and trader.
The stories of murder and genocide by European settlers is not unique to Australia. That doesn’t make it any the less shocking.
Added poignancy to the performance was the news that actor Ningali Lawford-Wolf from the company of The Secret River died while in Edinburgh for the play’s run there. Ningali’s family have given their blessing for the London season to proceed.
See it if you can. And read the book by Kate Grenville.