A powerful play telling the story of the conflict between early convicts and the original inhabitants of our country was a sold out success at this year’s Adelaide Festival.

Staged the Anstey Hill Quarry for the Festival, The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill, a convict sent to New South Wales in the early 1800s.He and his family try to claim land on the Hawkesbury River, but come into conflict with the true owners, the Dharug people.

Ningali Lawford was the narrator of the Adelaide production of The Secret River, originally an award winning book written by Kate Grenville and adapted for theatre by Andrew Bovell.

She told Aboriginal Way that the play tells the important story of violence and massacre underlying Australia’s early history.

“This is a fiction, but it’s also a fact. So the fact is massacres are not new to us in this country. As much as people think there wasn’t any massacres, there were massacres. We have to understand. And to understand our past we need to move onto our future. With all that in mind, we have to teach our kids that Australia did have a black history” she said.

The story has had a life as a novel and then television series and has developed along the way.While the story has had a strong impact in educating people about Australia’s history of invasion, there was criticism that the Indigenous voice was not strong in its original telling.

“It’s so much more different this time around” said Ms Lawford.

“I was involved in the TV series myself, but with this production, it literally just speaks of the two groups of people that live on the Hawkesbury.It talks about the Thornhills and the people that live along the Hawkesbury, the other community, people that live on the river, and their interaction with the Indigenous people.So the stories blend from the two groups of people, the Indigenous people and the non-Indigenous people and how they try to find a middle ground and become friends and then circumstances just push them to a different direction” she said.

The Secret River tells a powerful and disturbing story, one that is challenging for actors and audiences alike.

“So it’s quite a hard story to tell, and having to tell it from the beginning to the end, it’s so emotional, but it’s a story that should be told” said Ms Lawford.

The Adelaide production also featured local actors, including Kaurna elder Stephen Goldsmith and Rabbit Proof Fence star Natasha Wanganeen.

Asked what’s special about this Adelaide production of The Secret River, Ms Wanganeen said that the setting made it unique.

“For the type of production that we’re doing, that is set back in the day before colonisation was happening, that location is absolutely perfect” she said.

“We’ve had possums climb on our lights and butterflies and dragonflies everywhere.I mean it’s a beautiful setting for a unique story.The story of Secret River is a powerful one and the setting is powerful too, I can’t even describe the feeling I get when I go out there” said Ms Wanganeen.

According to Ms Wanganeen, the story has opened many people’s eyes about Australian history.

“It changes them.Because then they know how this beautiful country got to the point it’s at now.

“It shows how all of this disastrous, murderous stuff happens because of mis-communication. And hopefully we can learn from that, and start understanding each other a bit more and protect what we have left.White and black” said Ms Wanganeen.

The Secret River was a production of Sydney Theatre Company, South Australian State Theatre Company and The Adelaide Festival

By Lucy Kingston 


SANTS acknowledges that the land on which our office is based is the traditional lands for the Kaurna people and we respect their spiritual and cultural relationship with their country.