Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a hugely successful novel by Joan Lindsey that resonated so strongly in its native Australia that the story came to be thought of as true, later becoming an internationally acclaimed film.

Adapted by Tom Wright this dramatic version from Australia’s Malthouse Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre is ambitious in its objectives, but somehow lacks fulfilment.

The play starts with perhaps too long a narration from five uniform-clad schoolgirls telling of the strange Valentine’s Day disappearance in 1900 of one of their number while on a picnic at Hanging Rock – an ancient eruption from the earth below, steeped in tribal tradition and ritual. That there is power and mystery to this event is not doubted, but the awareness that volcanic forces are bubbling away under a controlled and controlling society are told rather than felt.

The black box stage set is also intended to convey mystery and gloom, but its austerity seeps away any connection with the overwhelming oppression of a sweltering, shimmering Australian landscape, and this is surely a story of the supremacy of the land.

The cast of five are more impressive as they act ou,t with great verve and physicality, scenes from the consequences of this event, taking on multiple roles and characters. Elizabeth Nabben’s truly sadistic and repressive headmistress, Mrs Appleyard, is especially chilling throughout, in spite of her permanent school uniform. In some ways, her nature is more fearsome than unfettered Nature. She is cruel and indifferent to the orphan Sara – hauntingly portrayed in a series of impossible contortions by Arielle Gray.

This is a difficult work to adapt for stage, with so many underlying themes that are trying to be conveyed. It’s an imperfect version, but an enthusiastic attempt to grapple with a mystery inside an enigma of a story.

Lyceum Theatre until January 28th

Photo Credit: Pia Johnson


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