The story of Picnic at Hanging Rock has haunted the Australian conscious for decades. The original novel spurred on multiple film and stage adaptations as well as a musical, radio play, and miniseries. This most recent stage adaptation by Tom Wright condenses the atmosphere of the iconic tale and heightens its drama exponentially.
The five cast members (Megan Bennetts, Alice Birbara, Alana Birtles, Audrey Blyde, Sarah Jane Kelly) carry the narration together, handing around the voices of the school girls and their caretakers as they make their way to Hanging Rock for an excursion. Once they arrive, a group of girls and a teacher go off to explore and the script fractures with them, settling the actors into their respective roles throughout the remainder of the script and the investigation into the now missing girls and teacher.
Set designer Victor Kalka sets the girls amongst the gum trees with trunks creating a broken screen through which lighting designer Louise Mason cast ominous shadows. With the soundscape, designed by Patrick Howard and composed by Georgia Condon, the lighting design created a dark and supernatural atmosphere of bright colours clashing with the native bird calls and strange humming. Amongst this extensive production design, the costuming by Leela Landers put the school girls in modern high school uniforms, lending the characters a feeling of modern girls re-enacting an old myth or legend. But this fell apart with the other characters dressed more appropriately for the 1900 period setting. It was a nice touch, though, to leave the missing girls’ uniforms hanging just off-stage like ghostly reminders.
Sahn Millington’s direction prioritised the drama of the story, heightening the emotions of fear and desperation to fever pitch. Picnic at Hanging Rock captured the dis-ease of English colonisers in an unfamiliar and hostile environment. The image of the missing girl in the bush, like the painting “Lost Child” by Frederick McCubbin, was a symbol of British fear in the “untameable” Australian wilderness. But Millington’s rendition did away with the eerie uncanny for a tone more pronounced. Particularly in the opening scene, where the actors establish the context of the excursion to Hanging Rock as a chorus, the script felt strangled of all subtly. By overemphasising the unexplained aspects of the girls’ disappearance (and reappearance) and exaggerating the lines implicating the Australian landscape, the production became insistent and aggressive.
While the production design was bold and heavy, the acting matched it with an over-performativity that felt relentless. Kelly handled her range of characters well from the brutish bushman Albert to the more refined Mademoiselle de Poitiers. Bennetts also stood out as a strong English school mistress as Mrs Appleyard. While performing as the school girls, the ensemble were staged in a choreographed line or moving through the space individually, exploring. This physicality filled the visual space but didn’t help to develop a sense of the characters as peers or friends which could have strengthened the dynamics of the ensemble and reinforced the “close-knit” mystery of the girls’ disappearance.
This production made some bold choices in the retelling of an Australian classic and, while some worked, others were mismatched and jarring. Perhaps a more deliberate departure from the original text with a feminist or post-colonial reading, rather than an exaggeration of the expected affect, would have given this production more room for interest and experimentation.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is running at New Theatre from November 17th – December 19th
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