Neil Armfield’s staging won five-star reviews, but staging it in the Australian landscape takes it to new level.

How do you top an award-winning five-star show four years on from its premiere? The 2017 Adelaide Festival, which kicked off last night, managed to do just that with a visually rich and intensely moving staging of The Secret River, Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s Booker Prize nominated novel, set in the overwhelmingly beautiful natural surrounds of the Anstey Hill Quarry in Tea Tree Gully.

The Secret River. Photos © Shane Reid

This re-mounting of Sydney Theatre Company’s production for the Adelaide Festival has been helped over the line by State Theatre Company of South Australia. The original staging, directed by Festival Co-Artistic Director Neil Armfield was lauded for its majestic story-telling, outstanding acting and its engagement with a crucial, yet still rarely confronted side of Australian colonial history.

Grenville’s novel tells the tale of William Thornhill, a Thames river boatman from the slums of Southwark transported as a convict to New South Wales. Pardoned by Lachlan Macquarie, rather than return to a world that cast him out with no prospects, Thornhill decides to occupy a hundred acres of land up the Hawkesbury River and become a farmer. Setting up camp with his wife Sal and two young children, their interactions with the local Dharug people – as well as with a group of fellow settlers – form the nuts and bolts of Bovell’s play. Thornhill’s determination to possess his own place and the colonist’s inability to understand the Dharug’s very different concept of ‘ownership’ lead to a clash of cultures – some humorous, some sinister – with ultimately terrible results.

The Secret River addresses the contradiction at the heart of our society,” says Armfield. “It acknowledges truths that have been hidden for generations but have created the country that we live in today. Wherever we have performed the play, there has been a palpable sense in the audience that ‘at last this story is being told’.”

Nathaniel Dean, Ningali Lawford Wolf and Stephen Goldsmith

The play has been seen twice in Sydney, as well as tours to Perth, Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne. This staging – close to the site where Peter Brook produced his legendary Mahabharata as part of the 1988 Adelaide Festival – is something else, and ‘palpable’ would be the perfect word to describe the reactions of the crowd at this opening night event.

Designer Stephen Curtis’s backcloth has been jettisoned for the ochres, purples and greens of the actual Australian landscape. The scale is immense, the cliffs dwarfing the whiter-than-white settlers huddling beneath their mass. The ease with which the Indigenous actors seem to move across the red landscape, their mammoth shadows playing on the rocks behind them, says more about the state of play in 1815 than text ever could. When Thornhill points to the moon and says that it is the same moon that shines over London, the audience can turn and see it, just one goosebump-inducing moment among many.

Festival Co-Artistic Director Rachel Healy recognises the importance of the opportunity to present a singular Australian story of first contact between black and white in the cradle of this awe-inspiring landscape. “It is a privilege to stage this unforgettable production on Kaurna land, and to bring theatre of such power and rich theatrical imagination to Adelaide audiences,” she says.

Ningali Lawford-Wolf and cast

The excellent cast is headed by Nathaniel Dean as a bluff, decent, but out-of-his-depth Thornhill and Georgia Adamson as his warmly sympathetic wife, doing it tough yet desperately homesick for London. Ningali Lawford-Wolf is an authoritative, heart-breaking Dhirrumbin, the Dharug woman who escapes to tell the story while Colin Moody and Richard Piper are compelling as a pair of settlers who see the Dharug people through very different eyes. Composer Iain Grandage reprises his onstage role as pianist, cellist and master of whatever else falls to hand. The magical lighting (Mark Howett) and sensitive sound design (Steve Francis) are both magnificent.

The Secret River is a meaty play, and it’s a long evening making it advisable to bring warm clothes as the temperature drops once the sun goes down. But at $40 to $99 a ticket, no theatre lover should miss this thought-provoking staging of a play – one that has already acquired the status of an Australian classic – in this uniquely powerful environment.

The Secret River runs until March 19 as part of Adelaide Festival 2017