Writer: Tom Wright
Director: Matthew Lutton
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
On a summer’s day in 1900, three schoolgirls and their teacher disappear on a visit to Hanging Rock, a place in the Australian wilderness filled with spirits and ghosts from before the settlers arrived. Years later, five schoolgirls try to solve the mystery, but the line between recreating the myth and becoming the girls it happened to gets increasingly blurred. With the supernatural, colonial and present day all at work in the story, Picnic at Hanging Rock has the potential to be superbly chilling theatre but ultimately falls short of delivering any real tension.
Drawing on Joan Lindsay’s novel, and possibly with a nod to The Blair Witch Project in its staging and direction, it opens with the five girls recounting the story of the fateful day, as the original girls make the decision to climb the rock. There are moments of great tension in their narrative, but they get lost in the background details, and there is little insight into the original girls. At the same time, the draw of the rock is presented second hand, limiting its potential to truly terrify an audience by not showing it through the eyes of the people who disappeared.
Of course, the way a myth can continue to exercise its influence decades later is itself chilling, and the production plays on this to show the aftermath of the original trip and the effect on the schoolgirls. Through a series of scenes, each supported by chapter headings above the stage, the return of Irma, one of the three girls, and the story of Sara, a fourth girl who was forbidden to go, are explored. As the schoolgirls learn about them they seem to lose their own identities and inhabit the world of the 1900s.
The five actors switch between roles, changing ages, genders and nationality as required, recreating the characters from the past and always capturing their essence. Elizabeth Nabben portrays Mrs Appleyard, the school headmistress, as a forbidding presence, the vindictive pleasure she takes in her persecution of Sara suggests dark motives for her chosen vocation. As Sara, Arielle Gray is troubled, withdrawn and uncommunicative, the perfect victim for Appleyard.
The slow unfolding drama creates tension and genuine concern, particularly for Irma (Nikki Sheils), who captures the guilt and confusion of surviving with no real recollection of what happened. However, the fragmentary nature of the scenes limits the extent it can get into the minds of any individual character, and works against building up the psychological fear needed to leave an audience truly unsettled. When the other schoolgirls gang up on Irma the play moves away from psychological drama, and into high school shrieking, removing the emotional depth of the characters, so that it ultimately feels like it is a story being retold rather than lived.
Tom Wright’s script doesn’t really explore the motivations behind Mrs Appleyard’s treatment of Sara or the post-colonial hangovers that lead to Hanging Rock becoming the stuff of myth and legends. It draws the audience in and keeps their attention but fails to deliver any real edge of the seat moments.
Runs until 28 January 2017 | Image: Pia Johnson