Feature: A note from Andrew Bovell

Date posted: 14 Dec 2015Author: Andrew Bovell Production: The Secret River

The Secret River


The arc of Kate Grenville’s novel is epic. It tells the story of William Thornhill, born into brutal poverty on the south side of London in the late 18th century, his place in the world already fixed by the rigidity of the English class system. In 1806 he is sentenced to hang for the theft of a length of Brazil wood. Through the desperate efforts of his wife, Sal, his sentence is commuted to transportation to the Colony of New South Wales. In this new land he sees an opportunity to be something more than he could ever have been in the country that shunned him. He sees “a blank page on which a man might write a new life”. He falls in love with a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River and dares to dream that one day it might he his. After earning his freedom he takes Sal and their children from Sydney Cove to the Hawkesbury to “take up” 100 acres of land only to discover that the land is not his to take. It is owned and occupied by the Dharug people. As Thornhill’s attachment to this place and his dream of a better life deepens he is driven to make a choice that will haunt him for the rest of his life. 

Sometimes the best approach to adapting a novel is simply to get out of the way. This proved to be the case with The Secret River. The novel is much loved, widely read and studied. It has become a classic of Australian literature. My task was simply to allow the story to unfold in a different form. It took me sometime to realise this. Initially, I favoured a more lateral approach to the adaptation. I wanted to project the events of the novel forward in time and place the character of Dick Thornhill at the centre of the play. 

Dick is the second-born son of William and Sal. Arriving on the Hawkesbury he is immediately captivated by the landscape and intrigued by the people who inhabit it. With a child’s curiosity and open heart he finds a place alongside the Dharug and they, perhaps recognizing his good intentions are at ease with his presence among them. Unlike his older brother, Willie he has no fear of the Dharug and seems to recognise that they understand how to live and survive in this place. He learns from them and tries to impart this knowledge to his father. William Thornhill’s failure to learn the lesson his son tries to teach him is central to the book’s tragedy. 

When Dick discovers that his father has played an instrumental role in the massacre of the very people he has befriended he leaves his family and goes to live with and care for Thomas Blackwood who has been blinded in the course of the settler’s violent attack on the Dharug.


Nathaniel Dean in 'The Secret River'. Heuidrun Löhr for Sydney Theatre Company 2013A WAY IN

One of the most haunting images of the book is contained in the epilogue. Thornhill, now a prosperous and established settler on the Hawkesbury sits on the veranda of his grand house built on a hill and watches his estranged son passing on the river below onboard his skiff. He lives in hope that one day Dick will look up and see him. But Dick never does. He has made his choice and keeps his eyes steadfastly ahead refusing to acknowledge his father and all that he has built.

Perhaps I was drawn to Dick because I’d like to think that if I found myself in those circumstances I would share his moral courage and turn my back on my own father, if I had to. I would hope that I too would refuse the prosperity gained from the act of violence and dispossession that the novel describes. I suspect though, that like many at the time I would have justified it as a necessary consequence of establishing a new country and found a way to live with it by not speaking of it. I would have chosen silence as so many generations of white Australians did. 

It was here that I wanted to begin the play; on the moment of Thornhill watching his estranged son passing on the river. I created an imagined future for Dick. The novel reveals that Tom Blackwood had an Aboriginal ‘wife’ and that they had a child together. The gender of this child is not specified but I imagined that if she was a girl that, once grown, she and Dick might have ‘married’ and eventually had children of their own. So, whilst William Thornhill and his descendants prospered on the banks of the Hawkesbury and became an established family of the district, another mob of Thornhill’s lived a very different life up river, like a shadow of their prosperous cousins. 

I mapped out a life for these two branches of the same family over several generations until I came to their contemporary incarnations. One family was white, the other black. I wondered whether they would be aware of their shared past and how the act of violence which set them on their separate paths would be carried through each generation and whether reconciliation was ever possible between them. I imagined the story of Australia being revealed through the very different stories of these two families who shared a common ancestor and a dark secret. Importantly, in my mind was the idea that through the generations of Dick Thornhill’s descendants, Aboriginal identity had not only survived but had strengthened. 



My collaborators Neil Armfield and Stephen Page and the Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett, heard me out but encouraged me to return to the book. They were right to do so. Perhaps by inventing this other story I was simply delaying the inevitable confrontation with the material at hand. Besides, Kate Grenville answered my curiosity about what happened to Dick Thornhill in her sequel to the novel, Sarah Thornhill. However, reaching beyond the source material into an imagined future was an important part of the process for me. I was trying to come to terms with the legacy of the violence depicted in the novel. I wanted to understand how this conflict is still being played out today. 

When a connection is drawn so clearly between then and now, history starts to seem very close. I think this is one of the novel’s great achievements. In William Thornhill, Kate Grenville has created a figure modern audiences can recognise and empathise with. He is a loving husband and father, a man who wants to rise above the conditions into which he was born and secure a better future for those who will come after him. This aspiration seems to me to be quintessentially Australian. 

Once Grenville has placed us so surely in Thornhill’s shoes, she leads us into moral peril for we find ourselves identifying with the decisions he makes. We may not agree with them but we understand them. And so we come to understand that the violence of the past was not undertaken by evil men, by strangers to us but by men and women not unlike ourselves. That’s the shock of it. Grenville wasn’t writing about them. She was writing about us. Above all I wanted to retain that sense of shock. 


A number of key decisions started to give shape to the work. We decided to use the device of a narrator. This allowed us to retain some of Grenville’s poetic language. We gave the narrator the name Dhirrumbin, which is the Dharug name for the Hawkesbury River. In effect, she is the river, a witness to history, present before, during and after the events of the play. She knows from the start how the story ends and it falls upon her to recount the tragedy of it. This quality of knowing gives Dhirrumbin a sense of prophetic sadness. As well as performing the classic task of moving the narrative forward, Dhirrumbin stands apart from the action and is able to comment on it. Even more importantly, she is able to illuminate the interior worlds of the characters, particularly the Dharug, and hence act as a bridge to our understanding of their experience. 

Building the Dharug presence in the play was fundamental to our approach and became one of the key differences between the play and the novel. Grenville chose to keep the Dharug characters at a distance. They are seen only through Thornhill’s and the other white character’s eyes and their actions and motivations are explained through the white character’s comprehension and often misinterpretation of them. In part, Kate chose to do this for cultural reasons. She felt there was a line that as a white writer she couldn’t cross and that it was not possible to empathise with the traditional Aboriginal characters. 

We didn’t have that choice. It’s an obvious point to make but in transforming words on a page into live action on a stage we rely on the work of actors. And we simply couldn’t have silent black actors on stage being described from a distance. They needed a voice. They needed an attitude. They needed a point of view. They needed language. 

We assumed that there wasn’t one available to us. We thought that the languages spoken around the Hawkesbury had largely been lost. For a while it seemed like an insurmountable problem. And then Richard Green, an actor and Dharug man, joined the project. We put the problem to him. He laughed and opened his mouth and spoke and sang in Dharug. It was, he argued passionately, a lie that the language didn’t exist. If it had been lost it had now been re-found, rebuilt and reclaimed. It was a living language. And no white academic was going to tell Richard that he had no language. He enlivened the rehearsal room with his presence and gave us the confidence to find the voices for the Dharug characters. He translated the language and made it fit the needs of the production and he taught the ensemble how to speak it and sing it. 

We began by giving the Dharug characters names in their own language; Whisker Harry in the book became Yalamundi in the play, Long Jack became Ngalamulum, Polly became Buryia, Meg became Gilyagan and Blackwood’s unnamed wife, Dulla Dyin and so on. In this simple act of naming the characters the Dharug world began to live on stage. 

The task of representing a traditional Indigenous point of view in what is a white narrative about history is fraught with difficulty and cultural sensitivity. Even with the best intentions and thorough research and consultation a number of assumptions are still made. I wrote a line for Garraway, one of the children. “I hate snake,” he says as his mother is preparing a meal in the same way as a contemporary child might say, “I hate broccoli.” Richard pointed out that there was no word for hate, as such. But even the idea that a child in a traditional Indigenous context would express dislike for a food central to their diet is an assumption we can’t really make.

This is perhaps the greatest challenge for white storytellers in this country – how do we make sense of what Indigenous peoples thought and felt about the arrival of Europeans in this country. Even first hand accounts from the time have been written down and interpreted by European writers. We can only be led by contemporary Indigenous people who with great generosity show us the way back so that we may begin to reconcile with our past. 

Trevor Jamieson in 'The Secret River'. Heuidrun Löhr for Sydney Theatre Company 2013


Perhaps the greatest departure we made from the novel was to begin on the Hawkesbury and therefore to lose the part of the story set in London. This section provides an insight into Thornhill’s deep relationship with Sal and with the River Thames and importantly it depicts the social and political conditions into which he was born and which shaped his character. It is full of rich detail about the place and the times and the man himself. And yet, from a dramatic point of view it was simply backstory to the central narrative. The point of greatest conflict, which is the bread and butter of drama, was the moment when black and white came together. I wanted to bring an audience to it as quickly as possible. It was in this relationship that the greatest interest and drama lay. 

The novel came alive for me on that first night in Sydney when, on a dark night, with Sal and the boys asleep in a crude shelter behind him Thornhill comes face to face with a black man and he is terrified. “Be off,” he says. And this man repeats back to him in imitation, “Be off.” This tense exchange encapsulates the central dilemma of the novel. Two men face each other on a dark night and both want the other gone. It is interesting that Kate chose to open the novel with this moment in a prologue before she took us back in time to London and formally began the story. The moment not only presents the central dilemma of the novel, it encapsulates our historical dilemma – two peoples with a different understanding of the land and its ownership come face to face. The question was whose definition of ownership of land would prevail.

History has answered that question but the novel and, therefore, the play suggest that a different outcome was possible. Thomas Blackwood, Thornhill’s neighbour and the closest thing he had to a friend on the river found a way to share the land. He understood the nature of reciprocity. It was a matter of give a little, take a little and of knowing your place. Similarly, the old woman Mrs Herring found a way to live peaceably alongside the Dharug by looking away when she needed to. In contrast, Smasher Sullivan, the lime burner, met the Indigenous presence with brutal and unreasoned violence. This contrast was played out to a lesser degree also between Thornhill’s sons. Dick sought to learn from the Dharug, whilst Willie was always urging his Dad to “get the gun”. 

Ironically, in the play, the same argument was taking place amongst the Dharug. Ngalamalum could see where the situation was heading and favoured a more aggressive response to the intruders. Whilst the old man Yalamundi counselled a wait-and-see approach – tragically believing that the whites would move on soon or, if they didn’t, would see the sense of the Dharug’s relationship to the land and emulate it. 

Even Sal, at first terrified by the Dharug, soon came to terms with the situation and began an economic relationship with Buryia and Gilyagan through the trading of goods and even came to regard them as friends. Thornhill could have taken Sal’s lead. He could have learned the lesson Dick wanted to teach him. He could have followed the path of Thomas Blackwood. Instead he chose to align himself with Smasher and the other settlers and embark upon a murderous assault against the Dharug as they lay sleeping. 

In one of the production’s most powerful moments, the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge’, first sung by Sal to her sleeping sons early in the play, has by the end become a battle cry sung by the men as they march, guns firing into the Dharug camp. 

Thornhill’s choice to participate in the massacre does not leave him unscarred. In the book, he is a haunted figure in an ill-fitting gentleman’s coat watching the surrounding hills for signs of the Dharug’s return. Perhaps he fears that they will return to claim their place, knowing that his own claim is tenuous. And yet, I think Grenville is hinting at something deeper. It is as though their absence from the landscape is like a psychic wound he and the generations that follow will carry. 

In the play, we leave Thornhill maniacally painting a fence on the back wall of the set to mark his land as his own and to keep those others out. And yet the fence starts to resemble prison bars and it’s not entirely clear which side of the bars Thornhill is standing on, whilst Ngalamulam, who survived the massacre sits by the fire. “This my place,” he says. “This me.”


The Secret River, 1 Feb – 20 Feb 2016, Roslyn Packer Theatre


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