Zoë Atkinson (Set and Costume design), J. David Franzke (sound design), Ash Gibson Greig (composer), Paul Jackson (lighting design)
There is a blurring of fact and fiction in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 Australian novel Picnic at Hanging Rock. This blurring has undoubtedly fed into readers’ imaginations, allowing this shivery tale of the disappearance of a group of schoolgirls on a picnic to seep in to the nation’s novel reading psyche, with the haunting 1975 film version further embedding the myth. This embedding is at the core of Tom Wright’s adaptation of the story that has its UK Première at Edinburgh’s Lyceum.
It is St Valentine’s Day 1900 in colonial Australia in the old queen’s eponymous state, Victoria. A party of five girls leave Appleyard College to go on a picnic with two of their teachers. In the heat of the day and in the unfamiliar environment, three of them wander off along with one teacher never to be seen again. Only one, Irma, is eventually found semi-conscious, but changed.
The mystery invites questions of abduction, murder, sexual assault or something more supernatural, encouraged by the fact that one of the party’s watch stopped at noon, making time essentially stand still. Suicides and the subsequent break down of order ensues but as part of the text reminds us, “There is no answer.”
Within the dark set of 3-sided tongue-in-groove oppressive grey walls, the five female actors dressed in the shapeless universal uniform of private schools, including what seems to be the ubiquitous tartan skirt, narrate the sinister tale’s heightened prose, indicating how deeply Picnic at Hanging Rock influences Australian readers to the present day. They stand in line facing the audience for a full 20 minutes, taking turns to reveal the text. Still dressed in school uniforms, they then go on to act out the various scenes. After each one, the stage is plunged into darkness before the next is heralded by surtitles like the chapters of a book. All this blackness may be meant to be atmospheric, but is so repetitive that any spookiness is dissipated
Modern school girl characters playing the novel’s characters may be a clever ploy that may have worked well for audiences steeped in the story but otherwise it is generally quite confusing and esoteric, with some interpretations being less clearly defined than others. An exception to this is Elizabeth Nabben’s superb take on the ‘more English than the English’ Mrs Appleyard, the school’s headmistress, otherwise this radical take looks like a highly sophisticated school rehearsal. The overt change from Michael’s male suit to bra and pants then back to school uniform towards the end before the girls line up again seems unnecessary and looks incongruous.
This drama is less sexually charged than the dreamy film version that was made in situ. Yet with no more than what looks like an old dead Christmas tree hovering above the set as a metaphor for the rock, it ironically contains the stronger political and environmental metaphor of the juxtaposition of these young, corseted, hemmed-in women who have been taught European literature, manners and mathematics being pitted against the wild and aboriginal country against which they sit so ill.
The idea of parallel time zones and the possibility of changelings are intriguing but while this conceptual interpretation of the Australian classic filled with eerie sounds may be thought provoking, it fails to send shivers.
13 – 28 January 2017 at 7.30pm