★★★★☆ Matthew Lutton and Tom Wright offer a surreal and subversive take on this Aussie classic.
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne
March 3, 2016
Like the gnarled, densely layered scrub of the Mount Macedon brushwood, Picnic at Hanging Rock is buried under a thicket of cultural awareness. Heaped high with a vividly illustrative nostalgia, channelled either from Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel or Peter Weir’s iconic 1975 film adaptation, this classic Australian narrative has percolated so potently through our collective subconscious that it has almost been elevated to a statement of historical fact rather than a work of fiction.
An attempt to refocus this story through an entirely original prism is inevitably a gamble: this act of theatrical bravery could easily be mistaken for blasphemy. However, director and Malthouse Theatre AD Matthew Lutton has not shied away from this challenge. Indeed, this intelligent, sharply detailed interpretation is a cleverly subversive account, rejecting the oppressive heat and brutal terrain that is such an unshakable presence in most people’s understanding of this text.
At its core, the essence of Lindsay’s story is largely preserved in Tom Wright’s new stage adaptation. On St Valentine’s day, 1900, three schoolgirls and their teacher, on an outing to the geological spectacle of the Hanging Rock, vanish without a trace. Their pale white skin, ankle length petticoats and 19th-century deportment are seemingly consumed by the wild, untamed crags and jagged recesses of the Australian wilderness. This inexplicable disappearance shatters the naive colonial arrogance of Appleyard College, bringing with it an insidious mental corrosion that seems to emanate from some ancient, possibly supernatural source.
Picnic at Hanging Rock has often been misconstrued as having at least some foundation in reality, but Lutton’s approach is far from figurative. Instead, this production latches onto Lindsay’s repeated references to dreamlike hallucinations, conjuring this psychological hinterland using a combination of slick, decisive direction and ingenious stagecraft.
Five actors, dressed as present-day private school girls, deliver verbatim passages from the novel with a foreboding intensity. The rich, evocative descriptions are hocketted between them, occasionally they adopt accents or microscopically adjust their gait or demeanour to guide our understanding of the scene, and yet what we see and what we hear are entirely divorced.
Wright’s script is a highly respectful homage to Lindsay, adopting much of the same sonorous vocabulary. This does however make some sections onerously text-heavy, so it is especially impressive that this superb cast (Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shields) are able to extract such emotive performances. At times, this text feels overwritten, but this is probably due to theatrical necessity: without the epic drama of the Australian landscape to power a sense of vulnerability and awe, this script has had to provide a substantial amount of scene-setting.
Instead of placing these characters amongst the hostile, sun-baked boulders of Hanging Rock, Lutton upturns this narrative paradigm. Zoe Atkinson’s set suggests a Victorian parlour, but it’s colours are leached into a dull, passionless grey. The dimensions of the room are warped, cinched into a far corner, creating an immediate sense of otherworldly distortion. In the distance, suspended overhead is a violent, seething cluster of branches and roots, like some abstract representation of the Australian continent, elemental and savage.
The canter of the plot is equally unsettling. Suddenly plunged into total darkness, we are assaulted by deafening soundscapes that take their lead from the rumbling winds of Weir’s film (although its distinctive panpipes are omitted). Just as abruptly, severely lit scenes appear, sometimes only for a few seconds, their sudden calmness somehow magnifying the constant, ominous sense of dread.
Fear is a relatively rare reaction provoked by live theatre, but Lutton’s aptitude for raising the adrenaline and widening the eyes is impressive. As we drift further into this hallucination, the bodies on stage become mangled and contorted, their odd angles and crumpled limbs further adding to the sense of unnerving strangeness. Even the theatre is chilled to an almost uncomfortable level of cold. This sensory overload is a scary thrill, but after a while this relentlessly nightmarish display begins to smear some of the narrative finesse that makes Lindsay’s book such a lauded work of literature.
The undercurrents of psycho-sexual abuse, particularly between the pinched, spiteful schoolmarm, Mrs Appleyard and the discarded yet defiant schoolgirl, Sara, are almost entirely passed over, so when we learn of Sara’s horrifying death and Mrs Appleyard’s ensuing mental break, its relevance feels tenuous. Lindsay’s book and Weir’s film offer a clear juxtaposition between the deluded colonial hubris of white settlement and its total incompatibility with the geographical and psychological isolation of Australia, but this more nuanced anthropological study is often muscled out by this production’s pursuit of a heightened fear factor.
But perhaps this is the point. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a text that has been analytically dissected for decades, and these endless scholarly deconstructions aren’t necessarily a route to a satisfying work of theatre. That Lutton has been able to chart new territory in this extremely well-trodden tale is itself an impressive feat. It may not be an entirely faithful rendering, but there’s no question that the sophistication and dramatic intention of this production have been carefully constructed to offer a fresh, albeit imperfect, perspective on an Australian classic.
Malthouse Theatre present Picnic at Hanging Rock until March 20. The Black Swan State Theatre Company season runs April 1-17.