From a Quarry to Cate Blanchett: How Secret River wound its way to Anstey Hill

The origins of the State Theatre and Adelaide Festival’s staging of The Secret River go back nearly four decades, writes the outgoing State Theatre executive director Rob Brookman

It’s now nine years since Kate Grenville’s wonderful novel The Secret River was released, so it may feel like a long haul for Adelaide audiences looking forward to Neil Armfield’s production of Andrew Bovell’s superb adaptation as part of the upcoming Adelaide Festival. For me, however, the origins of this particular and very special staging of The Secret River go back 38 years and represent a gigantic book-end.

Back then, I was a relatively green 24-year-old arts administrator learning my craft on Christopher Hunt’s first Adelaide Festival as Operations Coordinator. Excitingly, Peter Brook accepted an invitation to come to the Festival with three productions from his Centre for International Theatre Creations (CICT) including The Conference of the Birds, Ubu and a double bill of The Ik and L’Os. Significantly, he accepted the invitation because of his curiosity about Indigenous culture in Australia.

So far, so great. The only problem was that he and his fearsome producer Michelin Rozan made a stern stipulation in terms of venue that was exceptionally hard to satisfy. Brook wanted to play in a space that was defined by an ancient wall. There are many such spaces in Europe – for example I saw The Conference of the Birds in a medieval abbey in Avignon – but, on first blush, rather fewer in Australia.

An exhaustive site visit nine months before the Festival by Peter’s technical team yielded no satisfactory results despite viewing more than 20 potential sites – from abandoned warehouses to the Goodwood Orphanage. Panic-stricken that this extraordinary tour may be cancelled for lack of the right space, we sat down to try and think of a solution to the conundrum and it was Penny Chapman, then Writers’ Week coordinator, who suggested that the ancient wall could be the wall of a quarry that had been used as a location for the film shoot of Harvest of Hate (one for the film historians among you) she had worked on two years before.

anstey-hill-quarry-secret-river-mahabharata-adelaide-review
Few could have imagined the Anstey Hill Quarry becoming the site of a major theatre performance (image: Wikimedia commons)

Despite Rozan’s implacable resistance to performing outdoors due to the loss of a season in Rome to rain the year before, Brook eventually agreed when shown video of the quarry along with detailed weather records that proved that the chances of getting rained out were negligible. And so an abandoned quarry in the Adelaide foothills was to become temporary home to one of the most influential theatre makers of the 20th century and his Parisian-based troupe.

The 1980 season was a triumph, not only for the four jaw-droppingly good productions that CICT brought, but also because of the deep impact felt in terms of Brook’s expansive cultural vision which embraced the idea of art having the power to break down barriers of race and religion, certainly partial inspiration for me in creating WOMADelaide 12 years later. His ensemble, drawn from around the world, delivered productions that included Sufi legend, the anarchic world of French playwright Alfred Jarry, African folk tale and a shattering anthropological investigation of the Ik people of Uganda. Included within his requests were a meeting with Indigenous artists and community and we spent a wonderful day in a kind of cross-cultural inma during the course of the season.

At the end of the season, Peter mentioned that he had been working with the brilliant French writer Jean-Claude Carriere on an adaptation of the great Indian epic The Mahabharata and that he now knew where it must be staged. (Weirdly “Carriere” happens to mean “quarry” in French!) And indeed its French language premiere ended up being in a gigantic quarry outside Avignon.

There was no question that the English language production must return to the place of its inspiration. So, eight years later we at the Adelaide Festival, where I was now Administrator and Associate Director to Lord Harewood, joined hands with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Zurich Theaterspektakel, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Perth Festival and the Australian Bicentennial Authority to make a world tour happen. Thus the birth of a theatre legend… the season of the epic nine-hour long The Mahabharata at the Anstey Hill Quarry saw theatre-lovers and theatre-makers flock from all over the country, and goes down for many Festival afficianados as their greatest Festival experience ever.

Fast forward 21 years – in 2009 I was working as General Manager of Sydney Theatre Company alongside Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, and Cate raised the idea
of adapting The Secret River for the stage. Kate Grenville, while a bit bemused as to how anyone might render her novel into a work for the stage, embraced the idea. Andrew Bovell was a natural choice to undertake the adaptation, Neil Armfield was the natural choice as director, and Stephen Page, Artistic Director of Bangarra, was natural choice as artistic associate. They all embraced the idea and so the long and patient work of bringing a new play to the stage began.

The truly extraordinary result – when the play premiered four years later in 2013 – was testament to patience, careful development and the supreme skills of all involved. Little did I imagine that another four years on, the strands of the stories of the Quarry and The Secret River would finally intertwine in what promises to create the stuff that dreams are made of.

It reminds us above all that, despite its ephemeral nature, theatre can tap into deep history as we tell and re-tell stories that must be told. And there is no more compelling story that we must re-tell than that of the tumultuous and distressing origins of the contemporary version of our country. Where could this better be told than in a landscape both ancient and recently wrought into a new beauty by the ravaging energy of the creature that has created the epoch now known as the Anthropocene?

The Secret River
The Quarry, Anstey Hill Recreation Park,
Perseverance Road, Tea Tree Gully
Tuesday, February 28 to Sunday, March 19
adelaidefestival.com.au

Rob Brookman is the outgoing State Theatre Executive Director and Producer

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