PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK
ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock remains one of the cornerstones of Australian literature. Popularised globally by Peter Weir’s acclaimed 1975 movie, it tells the purportedly true story of a picnic in Victoria state in 1900 in which three schoolgirls and one female teacher from the Appleyard College boarding school go missing on the spectacular, but sinister, natural attraction known as Hanging Rock.
This stage adaptation, by the Malthouse and Black Swan State theatre companies of Australia, focuses sharply on the ambiguities and uncertainties of Lindsay’s fiction. Presented on an assiduously minimalist stage, dominated by three wooden walls painted in matt black (an inversion, it seems, of a Victorian Australian schoolroom), director Matthew Lutton’s production is a work of jagged, disturbing innovation.
Played by an excellent, five-strong, young, female cast, the piece begins with the quintet dressed as schoolgirls. Static and facing the audience, they act as third person narrators of Lindsay’s story.
However, as Lutton punctuates their speech with sudden blackouts, the actors transform, gradually, from narrators into character actors. Their school uniforms are, on certain occasions, replaced by the period costumes of key characters.
Chapter titles are flashed, Brecht-style, above the stage. One, quoting Karl Marx, reads, “All that is solid melts into air”, an accurate description of the seeming certainties of the Appleyard school and of Anglo Australia.
We are, here, on very shaky ground. As the fruitless search for the missing people goes on, the terrible episode begins to dissolve the minds of head teacher Mrs Appleyard and pupil Sara (who had been kept back from the trip to Hanging Rock).
Throughout the play, the disappearances, with their dreadful, imagined horrors, take on a metaphorical symbolism. Australia, the demonic “anti-Eden” that must be “brought to heel” by the civilising influence of British values, appears to have taken a terrible revenge.
This fear of, and hostility towards, the Australian landscape is replicated in an insidious racial politics. Mrs Appleyard’s description of Sara as an “albino” is shocking in its implication that the girl (who, the head teacher says, is “beyond all saving”) is actually a white Aboriginal.
Lutton’s production boasts some powerful images and fine, premonitory music and sound. Although he sometimes over indulges in his staging techniques, the director has, nevertheless, created a memorable work of unsettling events and unsettled psychology.
Until January 28. For further information, visit: lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on January 16, 2017
© Mark Brown