A cult novel by Joan Lindsay that became a cult movie, directed by Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock has long exerted a powerful influence on the Australian psyche – so much so that even to this day, this entirely fictional story is believed by most Australians to be based on fact. (I believed it myself for years and even after I read the truth of the matter, somehow managed to forget about it until I began re-researching for this review).
Weir’s film made a huge impression on me when I first saw it in 1975, so I was very interested to see how its themes of the conflict between the barbarity of nature and the suffocating repression of Victorian society would translate to the stage. This joint production by Malthouse Theatre and Black Swan Theatre, I am assured, is based more closely on the original novel, but I was indebted to my knowledge of the movie, which helped me to follow what was going on – something I felt I might not have been so sure of if I’d come to it totally unprepared.
The staging is spartan to say the least – an oblong grey box, overhung by some kind of tree limb. There are five female performers who first present themselves as contemporary schoolgirls. Standing in line, they begin to tell us the ‘facts’ of the case – the class visit to the titular rock on Valentine’s Day 1900, resulting in the disappearance of three girls and one of their teachers. The first scene is slow, drawn out (and perhaps a tad overlong) but as the narrative continues, the actors begin to take on character roles from the original story and things become a lot more interesting. Scenes are presented as short vignettes, with illuminated titles, each one followed by a sudden and complete blackout. Each time the lights snap on again, the characters or props have changed dramatically, amplifying a genuine sense of mystery and magic.
The performances are all assured, though I particularly liked Elizabeth Nabben’s turn as the acerbic headmistress, Miss Appleyard and Amber McMahon’s as Michael Fitzhubert, the lovestruck young man who goes in search of the lost girls and actually manages to find one of them. The effective sound design by J. David Franke also deserves a mention, incorporating a whole range of sounds from nature mixed in with whispers, groans and sighs, giving the proceeding the atmosphere of a classic Victorian ghost story.
Whilst not achieving the power of Weir’s iconic film, this is nonetheless a fascinating and thoughtful production that deserves your attention.