‘The Secret River’ in a quarry

by Jennifer Bryce

The Secret River by Kate Grenville has been adapted for stage by Andrew Bovell and performed at Anstey Hill Quarry, Tea Tree Gully, South Australia

This adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel took place at night in a dusty quarry, in Kaurna land on the outskirts of Adelaide, set up for outdoor theatre, holding an audience of about 1000.



The fact that many of us were uncomfortably cold added to the atmosphere of early European settlement on the Hawkesbury River. The director, Neil Armfield, points out that the story is set at a time when ‘those who came might have listened and learnt from those who were here, might have found a way of living here on this land with respect and humility’.  .  . but ‘a terrible choice was made’. In Kate Grenville’s story we witness this terrible choice being played out: arrogant assumption of ownership and, whereas the indigenous people manage to call the Europeans by their English name, the Thornhills find the Aboriginal names too difficult: ‘I’ll call you Jack . . .’.  The youngest son plays with the Aboriginal children and much later disowns his father when he finds out his role in the ultimate massacre.

Grenville herself says that this play is ‘far more than an adaptation – it is an astonishing feat of creative re-imagining.’ One of the most powerful dimensions added by putting this story on stage is that, whereas in the book we can see the indigenous Dharug people just from the European settlers’ viewpoint, on stage we see how the Thornhills were confronted because those indigenous people must talk and we can’t understand them. Grenville, as a white person, rightly in my view, couldn’t cross the line of empathizing with these people by putting words in their mouths. But as the playwright, Andrew Bovell says, ‘we simply couldn’t have silent black actors on stage being described from a distance’. It was fortuitous that one of these actors knew the Dharug language – the language of the Hawkesbury River people. Dharug actors were given Dharug names and they spoke their lines in the language. So we white people in the audience heard the Dharug people as the Thornhills would have heard them – there were no surtitles – we just had to try to make out what they were saying.


Bovell asks some crucial questions: ‘How do we make sense of what indigenous people thought and felt about the arrival of Europeans . . . Even first hand accounts from the time have been written down and interpreted by Europeans writers.’ In the cool breeze in the quarry, with night sounds around us, we were transported as closely as possible to that time when a different approach to settlement might have been taken, when there might have been some attempt at understanding.