Picnic At Hanging Rock
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Until January 28
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Best known in its cinematic incarnation (Peter Weir’s famous 1975 film adaptation), Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic At Hanging Rock is a remarkable work of Australian gothic. The book tells the story of three girls and a female teacher from an exclusive boarding school who disappear mysteriously during a trip to a well known beauty spot in Victoria state.
The novel (which Lindsay suggested, somewhat dubiously, was based on real events from 1900) is a mystery wrapped within an enigma. The dubiety of the tale’s provenance is not lost on director Matthew Lutton or writer Tom Wright, creators of this exceptional stage version by the Malthouse and Black Swan State theatre companies (from Melbourne and Perth, respectively).
Performed by a cast of five young, female actors, the piece begins with all five dressed in school uniforms and narrating the tale in the third person. They speak from an empty stage, surrounded by black painted, wooden panels.
Towards the back of the stage, above the performance space, suspended horizontally, is an ominous, tightly bound bundle of logs and twigs. The music and sound (including the insect and bird noises of the Australian bush) only add to the disquieting atmosphere.
The initial, seemingly straight storytelling of the piece outstays its welcome, and deliberately so. Just as we begin to worry that the 80-minute production will be constituted of nothing more than five schoolgirls narrating excerpts from the novel, the production begins to shift its perspective.
As Lutton suddenly plunges his stage into darkness, and, equally quickly, re-illuminates it, our narrators start to assume characters and costumes. Playing out of their age range (such as the ultra-English school principal Mrs Appleyard) or opposite their sex (the intrepid, young Englishman Michael Fitzhubert), the actors’ changing roles emphasise the disturbing uncertainties embedded within the story.
The girls’ lives are hemmed in with mutually reinforcing notions of feminine deportment and bourgeois, Anglo “civilisation”. With these supposed values comes a profound, fearful hostility towards the Australian landscape and, by obnoxiously logical extension, a deep, racial terror and hatred of the Aboriginal people.
The disappearances at the rock shock society not only because of the sex, status and perceived innocence of the missing girls, but also because they reinforce Anglo Australia’s deepest fears about the land it has colonised. Rather than being brought under control, the wild terrain of Australia seems to have swallowed some of the most precious fruit of the Empire.
The precariousness of a colonial identity that was hitherto considered unshakeable is expressed brilliantly in the relations between Mrs Appleyard and Sara, an orphan girl whose attendance at the school was sponsored by patron who has since vanished. Persecuted by Appleyard, who kept Sara back from the picnic, the girl is driven to distraction by the disappearance of fellow pupil Miranda (whom she adores).
The principal’s antipathy towards Sara, who she considers immune to the school’s civilising influence, is epitomised in the horrifying moment when Appleyard calls Sara an “albino” (a racial slur implying that the distressed girl is, effectively, a white Aborigine).
Lutton’s production boasts superb performances across the piece and a number of extremely memorable images; not least in the traumatised return from the rock of Edith, a schoolgirl who split from the party that disappeared. Highly-stylised and assiduously non-naturalistic, the piece achieves a remarkable paradox, being, simultaneously, emotionally detached, yet psychologically compelling.
The director’s modernist techniques (complete with Brechtian texts flashed above the stage) create a kind of aesthetic onomatopoeia with the disquieting instability of the subject matter. It is a fascinating and expansive take on Lindsay’s novel, and a penetrating contemplation of the construction of Australia.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 22, 2017
© Mark Brown