Hit play confronts Australia with its bloody past

Scene from The Secret River
Image caption Andrew Bovell says he hopes his play will provoke broader discussion

To see the play The Secret River in the run-up to Australia Day, the national holiday marking the moment of British colonisation in 1788, is to be reminded in the most confronting of ways why many Aboriginal Australians continue to label it "Invasion Day."

The drama, adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by the Australian author Kate Grenville, tells the story of William Thornhill, a British convict pardoned in the early 19th Century who sets out with his young family to build a new life on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, to Sydney's north.

His plan is to farm a small plot of land, with little regard for the rights of its ancient custodians, the native Dharug people.

"What marks a man's name is a square of dug-over dirt and something to grow in it that hadn't been there before," the reformed petty criminal declares at the play's outset. "It's as good as raising a flag."

When spear-carrying tribesmen first confront Thornhill, he fears they are about to kill him and his two sons.

As their interactions grow, however, he comes to respect their bush skills and even aspects of their baffling culture.

Sal, his homesick wife who pines for their former life in London, comes to enjoy the company of the Aboriginal women.

His youngest son, Dick, befriends the boys of the tribe, and begins to master their language.

Thornhill, though, can never banish from his mind the two ideas with which he arrived: that the tribesman are encroaching on his land, rather than he on theirs; and that the "blacks" are murderous savages, a prejudice stoked into paranoia by the other settlers who have also converged on the Hawkesbury.

"Enabled by gunpowder and led by ignorance, greed and fear, a terrible choice was made," notes the play's director, Neil Armfield.

"It is a choice that has formed the present. Nine generations later, we are all living its consequences. The lucky country is blighted by an inheritance of rage and of guilt, denial and silence."

'Mythology of silence'

That is one of the reasons, along with its startling acting and beautiful staging, why The Secret River works so powerfully as theatre.

Image caption Australia Day is not seen as a cause for celebration by many indigenous Australians

It speaks so directly to modern Australia.

"There's no use in investigating that history unless it is illuminating the present," says playwright Andrew Bovell. "The question of who we are is based on who we were."

He hopes the Sydney Theatre Company production, which has become the hottest ticket in Australian theatre, becomes a "conduit" for a broader discussion on the breach between black and white Australia.

"It's a sign of our maturity as a nation that we can talk more openly about these questions," says Mr Bovell, who also co-wrote the hit Australian movie, Strictly Ballroom. "Twenty years ago, there was almost a mythology of silence. We just didn't want to talk about it. There's a new openness."

The legacy of those first bloody confrontations between white settlers and indigenous Australians is still a matter of contention.

In recent decades, there has been something of a reckoning.

On land rights, the High Court's milestone Mabo decision, which last year marked its 20th anniversary, rejected the doctrine of "terra nullius", the idea that the continent was ownerless prior to British settlement.

Next month marks the fifth anniversary of Kevin Rudd's apology to members of the Stolen Generations, which was seen by many as a day of national atonement.

Image caption Many gathered to hear Kevin Rudd's historic apology on 13 February 2008

However, the gap in life expectancy between white and black Australians, which currently stands at 11.5 years for men and 9.7 for women, has proven devilishly hard to close.

Incarceration rates for Aborigines are also alarming.

The juvenile incarceration rate for young Aborigines is 31 times higher than the non-indigenous rate. In Western Australia, Aboriginal children make up 70% of the juvenile prison population.

Symbolic reconciliation efforts, like a proposed referendum to decide whether the Australian should finally recognise the first Australians, have also run into trouble.

Last September, the Gillard government shelved the original timetable, which would have seen a vote sometime this year, because it feared there was not yet sufficient community support for a change that many consider long overdue.

Only this week, the paucity of Aboriginal representation in parliament was highlighted by Julia Gillard's choice of the indigenous Olympian Nova Peris as a Labor party candidate in the Northern Territory.

Astonishingly, if Peris were to be elected to the Senate, she would become Labor's first indigenous parliamentarian (in 1971, Neville Bonnor, a Liberal Senator for Queensland, became the first indigenous member of the Australian parliament, while in 2010 Ken Wyatt, another Liberal, became the first Aborigine elected to the lower house).

'Communal mourning'

Noticeable over the past few years, however, has been a cooling off in the "history wars", the rancorous debate over how British colonisation and the Australian story should be interpreted.

Certain historians like Geoffrey Blainey, and leading politicians like John Howard, have bemoaned a "black armband" view of history, an unduly pessimistic take on white settlement.

Others, like former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, contested that white Australia needed to apologise for past sins. Rudd's historic "Sorry speech" in February 2008 quietened the battlefield, but by no means silenced it.

Books and plays like The Secret River, then, continue to be politically sensitive.

One of its greatest achievements is its nuance and balance. William Thornhill is not an entirely unsympathetic figure.

In trying to build his new life, and to escape his petty criminality, he embarks with good intentions. He comes to respect his neighbour, Thomas Blackwood, who lives with an Aboriginal woman, with whom he has a child.

He is plainly uncomfortable with "Smasher" Sullivan, the villain among former villains, who believes that the lash is the best way of dealing with "the blacks". It makes the denouement of the play all the more dispiriting.

"The play is not about dwelling in white guilt," says Mr Bovell. "It's not about self-flagellation. We've moved beyond that."

Perhaps the overriding emotional response to the play is one of sadness and frustration rather than of anger and shock.

Seeing the children play happily together, and the white and Aboriginal women respond to each other as sisters rather than foes, offers a glimpse of another possibility.

"You see Thornhill trying to move towards co-existence and mutual acceptance," says Andrew Bovell. "There could have been another way. There's a sense of communal mourning over what might have been."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites