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.