Picnic at Hanging Rock

As titles go, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fine conflation of the innocent and disturbing, although the cultural impact of Joan Lindsay’s novel is arguably more down to Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation than the book itself. Focused on a 1900 Valentine’s Day outing by some privately-educated schoolgirls into the Australian Outback, during which they and a teacher vanish without a trace, both novel and film deliberately play with ideas of truth versus fiction, in the process creating a sense of the uncanny that’s genuinely disturbing.

The ensemble cast are genuinely impressive, though Elizabeth Nabben and Amber McMahon are particularly memorable

A half century on from the book’s publication (and three decades after Laura Annawyn Shamas’s 1987 stage version), Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre Company provides Scottish audiences with an opportunity to see playwright Tom Wright’s new telling of the story, directed by Matthew Lutton for Melbourne-based Malthouse Theatre and the Black Swan State Theatre Company. Significantly, the word here is “telling”—both the initial and final scenes are essentially monologues—shared among the cast of five women, dressed as schoolgirls and slowly making their way, step by step, towards the front of the stage. This may well be blatant “info-dumping” of the first order, but the energy, urgency and intensity of the performance—all present tense, leaping from one member of the ensemble to another—immediately holds the attention.

Admittedly, there’s not much else that can; the set primarily consists of an otherwise empty space defined by plain, grey-wood panelled walls, with only Paul Jackson’s lighting, and J David Franzke’s increasingly repetitive soundscape to suggest the contrasts between these Victorian young ladies, in their stiff lace and corsets, and the ancient landscape into which they venture. Yet it’s generally enough; there are few theatrical achievements more praiseworthy than the ability to transform such an empty space inside an audience’s imagination.

But there are also distractions, not least how cast members and props can effortlessly appear and disappear during the numerous black-outs which differentiate “chapters” in the story—the titles of which are displayed portentously above the stage. Alas, echoing the “all that is solid melts into air” aspect of the story, successive scenes often feel unfocused rather than mysterious, while a hard-earned sense of dread is occasionally sacrificed far too easily for the sake of the short-lived thrill of a gratuitous visual or aural “shock”.

The ensemble cast are genuinely impressive, though Elizabeth Nabben and Amber McMahon are particularly memorable as (respectively) the snobbish headmistress Mrs Appleyard and the young Englishman who somehow manages to find one of the missing girls during his own search of Hanging Rock. Yet there is a sense that the script that these actors so powerfully bring to life is itself not quite focused enough. Picnic at Hanging Rock has potentially much to say about gender, budding sexuality, and the dangers from imposing one idea of “civilisation” onto an alien environment. That this adaptation opts to focus chiefly on a sense of dread is not, in itself, a problem; that it doesn’t always achieve it, though, is.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

On a summer’s day in 1900 three Australian schoolgirls grew tired of their classmates and yearned for adventure. Escaping their teacher’s watchful gaze they absconded, away from the group and towards the beckoning Hanging Rock – never to be seen again.

Picnic at Hanging Rock has haunted the Australian psyche for over a century both in print and on film. In Tom Wright’s chilling adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s classic novel, five performers struggle to solve the mystery of the missing girls and their teacher. Euphoria and terror reverberate throughout Appleyard College, as the potential for history to repeat itself becomes nightmarishly real.

Renowned Australian theatre makers Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne and Black Swan State Theatre Company join us at The Lyceum with a haunting tale for January which proves horror lurks on a warm, summer’s day.

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