Kate Grenville's 2005 novel The Secret River is the first in a trilogy to deal with Australia's dark past. It follows the story of William Thornhill, a convict transported to Australia for theft, who settles on the Hawkesbury river north of Sydney. There, he meets the Durugh clan, a tribe of indigenous Australians who find his sense of ownership and entitlement to the land bewildering. Respected theatre and film director Neil Armfield (best known for Candy, starring Heath Ledger) and Andrew Bovell, the writer of dark mystery When The Rain Stops Falling, have come together to adapt the novel for the stage, and assembled a fine cast to bring it to life.

Anita Hegh, Miranda Tapsell, Ethel-Anne Gundy, and Ursual Yovich in The Secret River.  Photo by Heidrun Lohr.

One of the cast members is Miranda Tapsell. Fresh from the success of her role in film The Sapphires and ABCTV drama Redfern Now, NIDA graduate Tapsell returns to the stage in The Secret River, having been involved since the initial workshop. She says she was enthusiastic about the project because the novel had portrayed a balanced and compassionate point of view: “I read the book and for the first time I started to understand the mind of the convict. I never hated or blamed anyone for our history but with a curious mind I had that question in my head, 'Why would a human do that to another human?' It just baffled me and I felt like unless we talk about why people did the things they did in that time, we won't understand our history,” she explains. “It's one thing to know it, the facts and figures, but [it's another to] completely understand why, to walk in their shoes.”

Tapsell felt that the balanced point of view was a new interpretation of a subject which often becomes emotional, and which held personal relevance for her. “It actually reminded me of being brought up in my own family, I have an Aboriginal mother and a non-indigenous father so I grew up with that balance and being able to see both sides,” she says. She adds that she felt the learning experience of devising the play and understanding her character brought her closer to an understanding of that history. “I feel like I'm a lot wiser about it now. I feel a lot more at peace with our history. I can understand how it is very easy to be angry with it but being in a play like this or even seeing a play like this might make me more accepting.”

This is the second show which Tapsell has been involved in for the Sydney festival, with her previous turn in last year's Eora earning her rave reviews. She plays Gilyagan, the wife of the tribe leader, and provides what she terms a “mirror image” to William Thornhill's wife, Sal. “She's the mother of two boys in the Durugh clan and it's interesting … Sal also has two boys so Neil's done this beautiful job of showing the similarities between the Durugh and the convicts, showing that they do things a little differently but they get to the same place.”

The landscape is almost its own character in the novel, with Bovell and Armfield determined to remain true to this interpretation for the adaptation. Grenville's love for and intuitive understanding of the Australian landscape and, especially, the eponymous Hawkesbury river, is translated for the stage by Stephen Curtis' set design. A local of the Hawkesbury region himself, Curtis has taken his home and adapted it for the stage so that every movement of the river can be plainly felt.

Tapsell feels that the play will be an opportunity for theatregoers to discuss our convict history in a way which may have been unthinkable in the past. She says, “How exciting is it to be in a time now that we can put a play like this on? I don't think it would have been as popular ten years ago.”

She has only positive comments for her director and writer. “I think Neil was the perfect director for this show because he brought such understanding and sensitivity to the content. He knows both sides of the story and understands them and brings that balance to it,” she says. Of Bovell, she adds, “Essentially Andrew wrote it in a way that the tragedy of it is that we're showing the potential of what could have been. There are moments where we give the audience a lot of hope, 'they could get along and live together in harmony' and then as tragic as the destination is we can't forget the journey, and the journey is in a different direction.”

The Secret River is running as part of the Sydney Festival until 9 February. For ticketing information, visit http://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/2013/Theatre/The-Secret-River/ or phone 02 9250 1777 or 1300 668 812