Valentine’s Day 1900 wasn’t a good day for a picnic at Hanging Rock. What should have been a nice outing for a bunch of giddy, buttoned-up, kid-gloved schoolgirls turned into a nightmare that lives on in our collective psyche. It’s pure fiction, but that doesn’t matter, we believe it anyway.
Joan Lindsay’s story struck a chord that keeps reverberating with audiences forty years on, and though it’s a fascinating mystery, it remains difficult to dramatise. Lindsay spends a long time describing landscapes and gardens, and her account of events remains rather dry and detached, leaving us to read between the lines for dramatic subtext. In many ways, it’s what she doesn’t tell us that makes this story so interesting.
And that’s what writer Tom Wright and director Matt Lutton have capitalised on in their adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock for Malthouse and Black Swan Theatre. They’ve made a valiant attempt at reaching underneath the surface to the boiling magma lying beneath Lindsay’s words, and with the aid of five intensely mesmerising actors and ninja stage management (Tia Clark with Georgia Landre-Ord assisting), they’ve come up with something rather chilling.
Firstly, we endure a good fifteen to twenty minutes of chorus-style delivery from the five ladies as they describe the events and atmosphere that lead up to the disappearance. They stand in uniform, in line, stock still across the stage, each piping in with a bit of the story. This would be tedious were it not for the beautiful voices and gripping delivery of the five women speaking to us.
After this, the blackouts begin. When the lights, designed by Paul Jackson, go out on the Picnic stage, magic happens. Objects and bodies appear and disappear on this set within mere seconds, the time it takes for people to vanish from sight into the ether, never to be seen again. The metaphor is understood, but the execution is incredible. There must be military precision at all times; I waited for a light change to catch someone out, but not a hair on the women’s heads was out of place that wasn’t meant to be.
Arielle Gray plays “dumpy Edith” as well as the increasingly contorted Sara, while Elizabeth Nabben plays Sara’s nemesis as the increasingly disturbed headmistress Mrs. Appleyard. Amber McMahon grabs a three-piece suit from somewhere in the blackness and becomes Michael, the young English gent who returns to the Rock, finding the near-dead Irma, played by Nikki Shiels. Harriet Gordon-Anderson is the true blue-valet Albert as well as the dainty French teacher.
The set, designed by Zoe Atkinson, is a distorted, elongated corner of a black room with only a black armoire and a suspended bundle of dried scrub on one side and a slim digital marquee providing scene captions above the stage to accent the space. It’s both a void and a dark wellspring of haunting images. Sound by J. David Franzke and Ash Gibson-Greig’s discordant, tension-filled score complete the hair-raising sensory package.
This version of the story benefits from the sharp mind and eye of Matt Lutton, and veers sharply away from the wispy, languorous interpretation offered by Peter Weir. Here the flag is planted firmly in psychological horror territory, which is a rare treat for theatregoers. When you go, make sure you’ve got someone’s arm to grab, just in case.
Picnic at Hanging Rock runs until April 17 at the Heath Ledger Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit the Black Swan State Theatre Centre website here.