“It’s cool, it’s chilling and it shocks”
Do you approach Hanging Rock expecting to see corsets hanging in mid-air? Well, in which case you will have noted that the excised last chapter of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book provides this astonishing feature. Either that or you’re wandering in a Dreamtime of your own (adolescent) imagination, set about with eucalyptus trees and hot flushes from Peter Weir’s 1975 screenplay. Now here comes the wake-up call, a dramatic restorative, if you will. It’s cool, it’s chilling and it shocks.
This Picnic at Hanging Rock is a stylish outing, to say the least, from Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre and Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company. That’s Perth, Western Australia, and that’s a collaboration over 2170 miles, but who’s counting? This is Tom Wright’s adaptation but as in Lindsay’s story distance is of no consequence and time is suspended, ‘running out and spooling in’, between grey black panelling topped with brushwood. No rock is visible and there is no interval.
There is thunder and a blackout and five schoolgirls suddenly appear, side by side across the stage, in immaculate uniform ready for Speech Day 2017. They tell the story, their shared creepy story, of what happened on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, when a daytrip from Appleyard College went to Hanging Rock and four girls and one teacher disappear. One of them, Irma, is later found, close to death, and with absolutely no memory of what happened. It is, at its opening, a composed and perfectly disciplined account that you realise is the sure and safe way to rationalise the irrational, the unknown and the dangerous. It is a long introduction but necessary, for in this telling you understand that an ancient landmark is an abcess to be swabbed away for the sake of white Australians everywhere and young ladies from proper schools can never be too English. Whatever happened, dear, it’s really too, too bad that it happened in the state of Victoria.
There are parasols to ward off the sun, a grand aspidistra to maintain respectability, and – figuratively – there must be ‘lino, asphalt, and axminster’ to hide the red earth. Mrs Appleyard, founder and Headmistress, remembers Bournemouth but dreams of the intimate touch of her (?dead) husband. Irma, returns to the school before leaving for a stay in England and is viciously attacked by girls suffocating in their own propriety. Director Matthew Lutton works to challenge perceptions: angling the girls in contorted positions, immobilizing their movements in successive freeze-frame ‘shots’, subjecting the narrative to enigmatic surtitles over frequent blackouts. How else to refresh, even subvert, what has become an almost mythological text, complete with panpipes?
It is actually without humour – an unusual and tense achievement over eighty-five minutes – but the performances of the several characters are still appealingly unaffected and distinct. Amber McMahon cross-dresses as the young Englishman, Michael Fitzhubert, but there’s no caricature here. Elizabeth Nabben is Mrs Appleyard and builds a fragile role to its last despairing moment; Nikki Shiels suffers as Irma, whose fate it is to keep her nightmares under control, whilst Arielle Gray and Harriet Gordon-Anderson are in supporting roles that they make important.
Is an audience bushwhacked by theatrical device and intelligence? I think so, but it is performed with considerable respect for its source and the script is smart, spare and ingenious. Technically it works a treat with outstanding lighting and sound and this is probably one production where the ‘best’ seats, for the best effect, are probably at the front of the Upper Circle and you should definitely read the Director’s and Writer’s programme notes after the show because they’re too helpful. The play’s the thing.
[FYI. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play at Hanging Rock on Saturday 11 February. You simply cannot keep a good place down!]
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 14 January)
Picnic at Hanging Rock at the Lyceum
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