Picnic at Hanging Rock at the Barbican Theatre review ***


Picnic at Hanging Rock

Barbican Theatre, 24th February 2018

Picnic at Hanging Rock is an Australian cultural icon. Joan Lindsay’s novel, published in 1967 and Peter Weir’s 1975 film, (and all manner of subsequent examinations, interpretations and meditations), is a metaphor which gets to the very heart of the making of Australia. It is a fictionalised account, purporting to be true, of the disappearance of three students and a teacher, at Hanging Rock in Victoria, from a girls boarding school on St Valentine’s Day 1900. The “rational”, “European” Australia is contrasted with the timeless, “original”, natural Australia. As one character says, “we named things that had not been named”, but it turns out naming isn’t really enough. It doesn’t get any more meta or deconstructed than this.

So no simple attempt to act out the book/film on stage. Mind you that wouldn’t be that simple anyway. Renowned Aussie theatre companies Malthouse, (Shadow King, their take on Lear, was fascinating here last year), and Black Swan State, with writer Tom Wright, came together to create something far more ambitious. Our all-female cast of five appear on stage against a black backdrop, (thus sidestepping the problem of the cavernous Barbican stage for this small scale production), to narrate the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock, in a fragmentary, almost musical fashion. Their uniforms are contemporary – no flouncy Edwardian white frills here – but in that old, fashioned public school way. They inch forward menacingly on the stage. It is not long before they themselves collapse into the characters from the novel, acting out the key scenes. They are, it seems, consumed by the story they are telling.

The staging remains sparse, so text, lighting, soundscapes, and our imaginations, combine to conjure up the settings and, in particular, the mystical, primeval landscape. By having the cast take on the male “roles” and by concentrating on specific parts of the story and of the text, (which are sur-titled for emphasis in each scene), the mystery of the disappearances is downplayed and the colonisers fear of the natural world, the “anti-Eden”, is foregrounded. The sub-text of awakening sexuality is also lent a complexity that was, I seem to remember, more one-dimensional in the film, addressed in particular by the performances of, I think, Elizabeth Nabben, as increasingly beleaguered head Mrs Appleyard, Amber McMahon as the artless English visitor Michael Fitzhubert, who becomes obsessed with finding the girls, and Harriet Gordon-Anderson as the forthright detective set to uncover the “truth”.

There is still a dream-like feeling to events, but not the hot, sun-drenched, woozy “outback” of the film, (though remember this was, even in 1900, a tourist spot a short(ish) hop from Melbourne), but a darker, more nightmarish, fracturing of reality. This does make for a somewhat ardent production, which left me a little puzzled at times, but I guess that is an occupational hazard when trying to unpick a myth, especially in just 90 minutes. Still there was much to enjoy in this bold approach from Matthew Lutton (director), Zoe Atkinson (designer), Paul Jackson (lighting) and J David Franzke (sound). I couldn’t quite work out from the programme who exactly “played” whom but no matter. Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shiels made up a uniformly excellent ensemble.





Phantom Thread film review *****


Phantom Thread, 19th February 2018

I saw Daniel Day-Lewis on stage. In Another Country in the early 1980s. That’s why it’s a good idea to buy programmes and stick them in a box. I remember the play a bit but not really his performance. Not sure I would have guessed he would become the “greatest ever actor” and not sure that epithet is entirely justified anyway. Anyway I was lucky since the only other way to have seen him in the theatre was when he was a student in Bristol or early in his ill-fated Hamlet run.

But he is good even if it is just on film. Very good. Brilliant in fact. Always a commanding screen presence. Whatever he does. Up to him but I reckon he is a bit cheeky retiring. His output isn’t what you’d call prodigious. Still he famously leaves nothing on the table when he performs and I guess he has enough to live on.

So we will have to make do with his cinematic legacy. Good for us he didn’t pursue his cabinet-making ambitions. And probably good for cabinet-makers too. He wouldn’t have made very many but they would be best in class.

His work with director Jim Sheridan counts amongst his best obviously as does his Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. But by far his best performance in my view, and that of many others, was as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, an all time Top 10 film for the Tourist. (Saw a memorable showing with a live performance of the score at the South Bank a few years ago with Jonny Greenwood twiddling his ondes martenot) TWBB was written and directed by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson who also does the necessary here in Phantom Thread.

Mr Anderson is an extraordinary film-maker as the string of awards for his films show. I have seen all his films at least once, with the exception of his feature debut Hard Eight and the documentary Junun, (about the making of Inherent Vice). They are all, by turns, baffling, annoying, claustrophobic, frustrating, stimulating, thoughtful, intense and intriguing. He doesn’t hurry, is not averse to repeating motifs, words or themes, and he asks you to think about the story he is telling. He pushes himself and us the audience. In his “tragic’ films his lead characters are powerful but flawed, cursed by hamartia. In his “comic” films the humour is complex and stylised. His camera never takes a pedestrian position and music and sound is never backgrounded. In short his is a very epic, theatrical approach to film-making. Which is why I like his films I guess.

So what about Phantom Thread? Daniel Day-Lewis plays bachelor Reynolds Woodcock, (I wonder how many other ostentatious names Paul Thomas Anderson mulled over before alighting on this corker), who is an obsessive frock designer for the great and good in early 1950s London. He is a genius with the needle and thread, his clients love him and his sister Cyril, played by the exceptional Lesley Manville. cocoons him and dumps his muses for him when they have outlived their usefulness. He is suave, charming, precise and fastidious, but egocentric, boorish whilst still slightly camp, and prone to childish tantrums if all is not to his liking. He definitely loved his Mummy: his dresses are all ultimately tributes to her. He meets mysterious waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) whilst away from London and seduces her. She falls for him, and his life, and moves into the London townhouse which also houses the business. He becomes dependent on her. The film charts their intense relationship and the way it affects him and his work. Reynolds has a fair few issues and a masochistic streak: Alma is his match, literally, equally complex and anything but helpless.

Put like this, as a romance, the story sounds commonplace. In the hands of Mr Anderson and the three leads, though, it is riveting and something altogether more rewarding. It looks, (costume designer Mark Bridges must have been in seventh heaven throughout), and sounds, (Jonny Greenwood should get the Oscar for his eclectic score), magical, but what really draws you in is the depth of these characters. There is a lot wrong, sometimes disturbingly so, with both of the lovers. At first you think Reynolds is just going to eat Alma up for breakfast, (breakfast, and specifically the correct way to butter toast, is a key motif here), then cast her aside. She persists, easing Cyril aside, takes on his mores and eventually finds a striking way to control him. This requires Vicky Krieps to match Mr Day-Lewis. The wonder is she succeeds. A stunning performance. PTA must have been ecstatic when she auditioned.

There is a definite Hitchcockian, or Powell/Pressburger, vibe about the whole affair, and not just in the setting. (I was reminded of the opera version of Marnie at the ENO recently). There are allusions to fairy tales here, the Gothic sort where is all goes pear-shaped for the protagonists. It is often very funny. Yet this still feels, even with PTA’s fractured, exaggerated and unpredictable observation, ripe and real.  A triumph which will need another viewing, and another, for sure.