Barnwell, Ashley: The Secret River, silences and our nation’s history

Barnwell, Ashley

The Secret River, silences and our nation’s history‘, The Conversation, 28 March 2016

Explores the controversy surrounding the current stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel, The Secret River. This controversy extends that associated with the original book: it is not just about the overlap between history and historical fiction but about how the story should be presented and what are the implications of artistic decisions. It links to director Rachael Maza’s recent Guardian Australia article.

Grenville had sought to explore what stories lay behind euphemisms about how her ancestors had ‘settled’ in the area north of Sydney. She had difficulty getting inside the Indigenous story and left Indigenous voices out of the novel. The playwright, Andrew Bovell, tried to include Indigenous as well as settler voices, using multiple story-tellers and Indigenous Dharug language, names and songs. Maza felt the use of Dharug language excluded audiences who could not understand it and that the play gave the impression that Indigenous people had died out, rather than remaining as resilient survivors.

Despite her reservations, Maza acknowledges that the play still tells an important story. It works to “find a way forward” in what is “going to be [an] awkward and … uncomfortable” effort to get the shared history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians right. [Neil] Armfield [director of the play] has also spoken about the difficulty of telling a story that both “respectfully mourns the genocide that occurred across this land” and “celebrates the survival of Aboriginal culture against all forces”.

‘The making of history’, Barnwell concludes, ‘is something that we live’.



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