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Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock at New Theatre

Review by Michelle Sutton

“This production of Picnic at Hanging Rock manages to create a palpable sense of intrigue, fear and dread from a classic well-known tale. In particular the score, sound design and delivery of the poetic dialogue by the cast members will transport the audience straight into the mystery.”

Picnic at Hanging Rock is an iconic Australian story. Written in the 1960s about the fictitious disappearance of a group of private schoolgirls in country Victoria circa 1900, Joan Lindsay crafted a mystery so compelling that to this day many people believe her story was based on true events. Tourists even travel to the real-life Hanging Rock, to see for themselves the site where they believed the girls vanished.

Sahn Millington is directing the Sydney premiere of Tom Wright’s theatrical adaptation at New Theatre. The cast consists of Megan Bennetts, Alice Birbara, Alana Birtles, Audrey Blyde and Sarah Jane Kelly. The success of Wright’s script rests on these five actors, who interchangeably play the girls who wandered away from the picnic as well as the other male and female characters. The play is not a linear narrative, but rather a poetic re-telling of the events. As such, the dialogue or absence of it is the driving force of the play and responsible for creating the tension.

The audience is immersed in the sounds of the Australian bush from the moment they step into the theatre- birds, running water, the sounds of twigs breaking under foot. The sound design by Patrick Howard aids immensely in establishing a sense of the great outdoors, a wilderness that can transform from serene to deadly in just moments. The actors wear school uniforms that would not be out of place in any private girls' school in Australia today. Victor Kalka the set designer has kept the stage sparse, except for tall life-size trees that appear on either side of the stage that the girls weave through. They create a sense of depth and space that is far beyond the confines of New Theatre. The actors expertly change their dialect, physical stance and mannerisms to embody the different characters. The work of dialect coach Benjamin Purser is evident in the array of accents of colonial Australia are presented. The proper British accent of Mrs Appleyard contrasting with the Australian accents of the girls showing the audience how they inhabit the same physical place but are grasping onto life in different worlds. The lighting (Louise Mason) and sound design (Patrick Howard) come together to produce a gothic eerie tone throughout and some truly horrifying, gasp-inducing moments. The music by Georgia Condon, consisting of angelic voices and ominous cello (Medhat Boulos) brings in the allure of the supernatural and creates a visceral sense of dread.

As someone who has seen Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation but never read the book, I was expecting something mesmerising and soft. There is nothing soft and subtle about this play, it is a psychological thriller that packs a punch with every phrase. It makes political commentary on poverty, colonialism and gender. Throughout the play, different characters exclaim that nothing they were taught at the school was “real” and none of the lessons they endured have “real world” value. Even Michael, the visitor from England remarks that Melbourne and the small country town of Macedon are “fake”, like a stage set that people are moving through. They have been living in a fantasy, a world of theatre. The mysterious disappearance of the women is the catalyst for reality to start breaking through. The audience watches as the characters previous sense of propriety, dignity and control unravels into fear and paranoia. The idea of the futility in attempting to copy and paste English society into the unruly lands they call Australia is driven home.

The play deals with the aftermath of unexplained tragedy, how grief and fear reverberate through a small community and deeply change people. The frustration and confusion from the lack of answers leads some people to turn on each other, becoming violent. The trauma leads to insomnia for some, excessive drinking for others, and existential crisis for many. I found the cast’s gritty, nuanced portrayal of grief to be incredibly impactful, leaving an impression long after I had left the theatre. The themes of rural grief and the irrepressible power of nature ring very true today. Australia has seen droughts, fires and floods all in the space of a couple of years. Climate change is transforming the landscape, and we are still out of touch with the earth, thinking we can take and make what we want out of it, rather than listening to it and following its lead.

The cast and crew achieve what they set out to do in this adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Sahn Millington successfully presents this tale of mystery to be just as riveting and unsettling as it was over fifty years ago.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is playing at New Theatre until the 19th of December.

Production images: © Bob Seary


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