Left – Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Amber McMahon. Cover – Arielle Gray, Nikki Shiels, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben, Harriet Gordon-Anderson. Photos – Pia Johnson
Tackling the real-life story of Picnic at Hanging Rock on stage is no mean feat – actually no, for first hurdle – the haunting and tragic fable is not based on facts.
This tale is so iconic and so entrenched in Australia’s collective mind that many still believe it to have really happened. Author Joan Lindsay’s novel was written in 1967 and history when it was released as a film by Peter Weir in 1995 it seemed to instantly cement itself in Australian history.
The story is set on Valentine’s Day 1900 – when everything appeared to be teetering between the old era and new possibilities. A conquering nation England was attempting to tame a land steeped in ancient mysteries. The vulnerability of new inhabitants was palpable and never more so than in this tale of young English “gels” on an outing to Hanging Rock.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is multi-layered and the cast and crew have successfully presented its multi-dimensions on stage at the Malthouse Theatre. Malthouse’s play opens on a very plain set with five cast members in school uniform. The scene is set as each one tells a section of the story bouncing words back and forth almost like tossing a ball. Their story-telling is perfectly timed and hence the tension builds. Loud music and pitch black on the stage cuts the scene short and the tale unfolds with the cast taking on different roles. The technique of pitch black scene changes is a clever one that adds to the suspense throughout the performance.
This is an ensemble performance with actors changing roles. As such it is difficult to single out any one performer. Rather certain scenes stand out.
Amber McMahon and Nikki Shiels shine in their tea party scene as the English gentleman and the young lady Irma. The timing, the facial expressions and the interchanges are mesmerising.
Harriet Gordon-Anderson’s scenes as the French mistress are tres bon, Arielle Gray’s Edith is instantly recognisable despite her diminutive figure and Elizabeth Nabben shines as Schoolmistress Hester Appleyard.
The film Picnic at Hanging Rock captured the imagination of Australians and the image of flowing Victorian dresses remains in the memory as a stark contrast to the Australian scenery and the tragic events. Director Matthew Lutton has used different techniques to portray this enduring Australian myth.
Musical composition by Ash Gibson Greig, Lighting Design by Paul Jackson and Sound Design by J. David Franzke, ably assisted by the sudden and dramatic black-outs, are the tour de force behind this production.
The stage adaptation by Tom Wright has adroitly captured the complex nature of this story, one full of contrasts – a fun picnic turned tragedy, English rules and regulations as opposed to the lawlessness of Australian bush and the diminutive schools girls gazing up at a towering rock.
This was a gripping story about an Australia coming to terms with its individuality and independence from the UK homeland. It struck a chord when the film was released 95 years after the story was set. It is still striking chords. In a landmark deal, the six-part reimagining of Joan Lindsay’s revered 1967 novel will run on Amazon in the US following its Australian debut on showcase later this year.
Malthouse Theatre presents
Picnic At Hanging Rock
adapted for the stage by Tom Wright
Director Matthew Lutton
Venue: Malthouse Theatre | The Coopers Malthouse, 113 Sturt St, Southbank VIC 3006
Dates: 6 – 14 February 2018
Bookings: 03 9685 5111 | malthousetheatre.com.au