Picnic at Hanging Rock at the Barbican
Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel about the disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher holds a position of cult status in literature. The 1975 film version directed by Peter Weir went on to bring its own romantic filter to the tale, and a television adaptation due to air later this year will doubtless add a new spin. And now a stage show inserts itself into the canon, courtesy of Malthouse Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company, led by director Matthew Lutton. It turns out that Picnic at Hanging Rock is naturally suited to the stage: it’s a solid and haunting piece of storytelling plump with potential for jumpy moments.
The beauty of Lindsay’s book is that it gives no answers. This theatre show relishes that sense of the unknown while adding a contemporary edge and playing up the “horror” element. Five schoolgirls share the role of narrator, dispensing choice fragments of the novel to tell the story of the privileged white women pitted against the ancient power of nature, the wild Australia that they had come to tame and to name. Following the tragedy of the girls’ vanishing, time becomes malleable and logic is turned on its head. The audience is subjected to disorienting scene changes and glimpses of harrowing images, such as contorted bodies or the slowly retreating back view of a hypnotised schoolgirl.
An all-round strong cast conjures a bevy of characters. Elizabeth Nabben is particularly impressive as headteacher Mrs Appleyard, who charts a course from cold arrogance to haggard bewilderment, all the while pronouncing in impeccable cut-glass RP.
Zoe Atkinson’s set is aptly sparse and oppressive. The decision not to reproduce the eponymous rock on stage means the piece’s most important character is left to the viewers’ imagination. Sound plays a large role, with Ash Gibson Grieg’s original, paranoia-inducing music depicting the crackling of synapses. Blackouts are used to huge dramatic effect and costumes span different eras, adding to time’s elasticity.
Inhabiting its own space within the iconic lore, Picnic at Hanging Rock the stage adaptation pays homage to the novel’s intoxicating language while establishing an immersive sense of fear that is both confronting and thoroughly enjoyable. Fans of the book and film will not be disappointed; those not yet familiar with the story will need to pay extra attention but will find the show an inviting first step into the mesmeric orbit of Hanging Rock.
Photo: Pia Johnson
Watch the trailer for Picnic at Hanging Rock here: