Iain Grandage has been a significant presence on
the Australian stage for over a decade, having composed and/or performed
with nearly every major theatre company in the country.
has arranged for Tim Minchin, Sinead O’Connor, Black Arm Band, Gurrumul,
The Whitlams, Tim Rogers, Ben Folds, and is the recipient of a number
of Helpmann awards – first in 2002 for his work on the landmark
Australian production Cloudstreet, and again in 2012 for his Musical Direction of Little Match Girl.
He is currently performing in Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Secret River, as part of the 2013 Sydney Festival. He spoke to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.
Iain, for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the narrative of The Secret River, can you give me a snappy seven word pitch for the play? First contact story with a powerful what-if.
Can you tell me something brief about the back story of the thief William Thornhill? I
don’t think of him as a thief. First and foremost, he was a hardworking
riverman who delivered goods and people by boat along the River Thames.
He married above himself (to Sal Thornhill), and in his efforts to
provide for her and their children, resorted to desperate measures. His
death sentence for stealing was, on appeal, commuted to life
imprisonment in New South Wales, and Sal chose to accompany him here to
And in a little more detail something about
his particular journey, when where why how, an overview of the
characters he meets along his path? He travelled on the
Alexander transport to New South Wales in the first decade of the 19th
Century and worked in the colony at Sydney Cove for four years before
earning his pardon and moving to the Hawkesbury, to a place now known as
Wiseman’s Ferry. He knew the country along the River from his work as a
trader on the ‘Hawkesbury Run’ from the settlement’s pastures around
Windsor to Sydney Cove. This was at a time when land was being claimed
by entrepreneurial free settlers, many of them members of the European
underclass of the early 19th century. Whilst most are antagonistic to
the local Dharug people, some have learned to live harmoniously with
them, most notably Thornhill’s old friend Tom Blackwood.
Can you give me an overview of the Dharug peoples that inhabit the Hawkesbury River region? They
lived a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, travelling to various places
on the river for ceremonial and practical reasons. Whilst they didn’t
farm in a European sense, they cared for the land through judicious
tending as well as controlled burning. To the best of my knowledge, they
were content and needed for little.
What seized you the most while reading Kate Grenville’s book, was it the conflict, the transformation? I
was instantly taken by the completeness of the world described by Kate.
This world was one in which I found myself hoping against hope that the
story I knew to be true in historical terms wouldn’t consume our
central character. Namely that this good man would find a way to respect
the prior occupation of ‘his’ piece of land by the indigenous
inhabitants, and resist the domineering attitudes of many of his fellow
What sounds did the story evoke for you
while reading, tell me about this is some detail? (I’m curious about
some detail of your journey on this play as composer from inception
through development to realisation). The novel
fantastically evokes sights, smells and sounds and these were obviously
high in my consciousness as I read. But folk songs kept coming to me as
well. These were working class people, for whom the European art music
of the time (the High Classical/early Romantic world of Mozart, Haydn
and Beethoven) would have been as foreign as the traditional songs of
the Dharug. I was eager to include folk tunes that felt honest and
lived-in rather than earnest and learnt, so these became the building
blocks for much of the score.
Tell me about your role as the composer and being on stage for the duration, how did this concept come about? Half
a lifetime ago, I played a show with many of the same creative team as
this adaption of Secret River. It was a version of Tim Winton’s
‘Cloudstreet’ and Neil the director had me play live for that show. It
is his preference to have live music as part of his theatre shows, and
with good reason. From my point of view, it allows the score to live and
breathe the same air as the actors, and with them make a more complete
theatrical telling of the story.
At the heart of the
story is the conflict between European Settlement and Dharug culture,
can you tell me briefly about the way this tension is evoked sonically,
the arrangements, the instrumentation, the voices, the ‘chorus’? We
have had the great pleasure of having Richard Green work with us as
cultural consultant speaking for the Dharug peoples, and he has gifted
us a number of Dharug songs to utilize in the show. Starting with these
on one hand, and European folk songs on the other, I have tried to
create a world where voices are given equal weight. Whilst I play the
piano in the show, there is a second, stripped back piano frame that
gets bowed and plucked by cast members during the show. For me the piano
is a great metaphor for our transplanted European culture here in
Australia, and I use it as such in the show. But I was also keen to have
sounds that were less recognizably ‘from a culture’. The sounds from
piano frame have come to represent (along with Richard’s songs) the
Dharug world – both the people and their land.
Do you think there is a prevailing mood or tenor to your composition, tell me about this mood and how this mood is evoked? I
try at all times to stay true to the intention of each moment of the
play, and to the broader ebb and flow of its pace. So there are lighter
moments, introspective moments, moments of high tension and moments of
deep sadness. Overall, I have tried to maintain forward momentum in the
score, as Kate so beautifully does in her book, and Andrew Bovell does
in his adaption.
How do the actors relateand/or attend
to the soundscape, is it a background or foreground focus or an ebb and
flow between both – can you give me an example or two perhaps? Neil
has a wonderful way of creating transparent theatre, where all the
aspects of the story telling are knowingly revealed and celebrated. This
means that all the actors create not only foley (ocean waves, digging
sounds) but also contribute musically on guitars, a clarinet, an
acoustic bass, as well as the piano frame already mentioned. I have
tried to ‘cast’ the musicians to appropriate moments in the play, so for
example if there is a narration about Thornhilll and intimacy, I’ll ask
for the actress playing Thornhill’s wife (the marvelous Anita Hegh) to
help underscore that moment. Hopefully this helps reinforce the sense of
a world within a world – of a story being created especially for each
and every audience member by a troupe of players in a theatrical play
What do you love about your role and in particular the director’s vision for this The Secret River on stage adaptation? I
love playing a music score live because it means I can be responsive to
the rhythms of any particular performance, and respond accordingly. If a
scene is particularly aggressive or tender, then I can alter the music
to suit, hopefully maintaining the rhythm of the show. Neil‘s theatrical
craft is so finely honed, my job is easier than it might otherwise be.
What has been the most challenging aspect for you during the rehearsal process? I
have a new daughter, so in fact the most challenging aspect was flying
up and back every week to Melbourne, trying to spend enough time with
both my families – my home one, and my Secret River one.
has been the most satisfying aspect during rehearsals for you
personally so far, I imagine it might include something along the lines
of the joy of alchemy, the magic that happens when all the disparate
components and voices and characters mix? Absolutely.
Getting to sew many of the threads of my creative life together in one
show has been deeply satisfying. Some of the indigenous actors on this
show are old friends, and getting to work with them musically in a
theatrical context, so that indigenous and non-indigenous musics can be
heard side by side has been an absolute pleasure. It feels like I’m as
Australian as I can be in this cast, and that’s primarily because our
indigenous cast members are so endlessly welcoming.
Theatre Company's The Secret River by Andrew Bovell and directed by Neil
Armfield, is now playing as part of the 2013 Sydney Festival. Until 9
Image credit:– Top right – Colin Moody and Iain Grandage. Photo – Heidrun Lohr First Published Australian Stage 14.01.2013