Edinburgh Festival Theatre

The Secret River
King’s Theatre
Five stars
Ends today

Until the Flood
Traverse Theatre
Four stars
Until August 25

Four stars
Until August 25

Kate Grenville’s multiple award-winning 2005 novel The Secret River is celebrated as one of the finest Australian prose fictions of recent times. This stage adaptation, for the Sydney Theatre Company (SYT), by Andrew Bovell gives shudderingly powerful expression to its sorrowful and humane reckoning with the colonial genocide of the peoples of Australia’s First Nations.

The play, which is set in the early-19th century, tells the story of William Thornhill, a recently pardoned convict who was transported from the slums of London to Australia. Thornhill, with his wife and two sons in tow, lays proprietary claim to 100 acres of land in what the British government has called New South Wales. However, it soon becomes clear that this is also the story of the Dharug people, who were the guardians of the land long before the whites set foot in Australia.

The issue of white representation of the genocide, and of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who suffered (and continue to suffer) it, is a difficult one. Neil Armfield, who directs this production (SYT’s Edinburgh International Festival debut), deals with the matter with due sensitivity.

As Thornhill arrives on the land, soon acquainting himself with other colonists (including a particularly nasty settler by the name of Smasher Sullivan), the piece becomes a compelling evocation of a time and place. As the ex-convict surveys “his” land, the Dharug people are, indeed, there, cheek by jowl with the white interlopers.

The songs, rituals and daily life of the Dharug criss-cross, then, connect (in mutual fear, suspicion and, even, friendship) with the lives of the Thornhills. As they do so, the selected scenes from Grenville’s novel are joined together by an Aboriginal narrator, the famous actor Ningali Lawford Wolf (who will be remembered by theatrelovers of a certain age for her fine one-woman play Ningali, which played at the Edinburgh Fringe in the mid-1990s).

Nicely acted throughout, accompanied by atmospheric live music and sound, designed with stark simplicity and lit with affecting subtlety, the play moves, with a terrible inevitability, towards its brutal conclusion. Its denouement, however, takes us beyond that seeming endpoint, landing us in Australia today with an unexpected and emotionally overwhelming force. It is a genuine coup de theatre and one that is worthy of the moral weight carried in its story.

There is also great moral weight in Until the Flood by the superb African-American writer and actor Dael Orlandersmith. The piece is a one-woman play created from interviews conducted in the aftermath of the killing of the black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

What might have been a work of stark and harrowing documentary theatre becomes, in Orlandersmith’s hands, something altogether deeper and more human. The author/actor plays various, real-life characters, including Louisa Hemphill (a black retired school teacher in her early seventies) and Rusty Harden (a white, 75-year-old retired policeman).

It is testament to Orlandersmith’s skill, both as writer and actor, that each voice is rendered with a striking credibility. Written and performed with sorrow, anger, humour and, principally, compassion, it is a deeply moving response to an agonisingly significant chapter in the history of race in America.

Sparkle is a beautiful and important play for children aged three to eight. Originally created by its director Annie Cusick Wood for the Honolulu Theatre for Youth in Hawaii, this Edinburgh Fringe production is supported by leading Scottish children’s theatre company Catherine Wheels.

The piece is performed delightfully by Christina Uyeno (as the neatly ambiguous Kokua – which means “helper” in Hawaiian) and Nathaniel Niemi (playing David Johnstone, aka “Sparkle”, a child who is just beginning his school life). Sparkle, as his name suggests, isn’t exactly cut out for school uniform or, for that matter, uniform notions of gender.

As he tells his sparkly-attired pet caterpillar, Gerald, he just wants to perform his show for his classmates. What ensues is a gorgeously simple, touching, splendidly staged story of macho bullying, friendship and triumph over adversity.

Elsewhere at the festivals, James McArdle gave a memorable performance as Peter Gynt (Festival Theatre, run ended), in David Hare’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s great play of folklore and overweening ambition. Set aside the puerile controversialising of the Sunday Times’ so-called “theatre critic” Quentin Letts (who attacked what he called the “whining Scottish accents” of the production’s Caledonian actors).

In a generally strong production, the weaknesses lie elsewhere, mainly in Hare’s long-time commitment to explication and bald, political satire. The playwright seems to be waging a one-man war against metaphor and ambiguity.

Finnish show The Desk (Summerhall, until August 25) is an interesting physical theatre piece about dogma and control. We watch five regimented schoolgirls under the control of a deranged teacher-cum-cult leader.

There are shades here of the work of brilliant Norwegian theatremaker Jo Stromgren. However, nicely performed though it is, The Desk never quite achieves the originality or variety of a Stromgren show.