Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Photo: Pia Johnson

There’s a volcanic rumbling beneath this deftly staged production, and the stark minimalism of the set design and staging add to the sense of something dark, primal and unstoppable at work.

The story at the heart of Picnic at Hanging Rock centres on the unexplained disappearance of three schoolgirls and one of their teachers on Valentine’s Day, 1900, based on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay.

The novel is considered one of Australia’s most important pieces of literature, and Lindsay’s use of a pseudo-historical prologue and epilogue still successfully puts the question ‘did it really happen?’ into the minds of its audience. The way that the set, lighting, sound, small cast and dialogue all work together in this spectacle is a masterly exercise that helps keep this question alive.

The story’s underlying criticism of colonialism and repressed but deep-seated fear of the force of nature are all brought in front of the viewer in unusual, stark and unsettling ways.

It is often unsettling to watch, and with the rapid set changes taking place in pitch dark, while ominous walls of sound echo across the theatre, and a stark changing sign raised above the action, it’s never possible to simply sit back and wait for this story to unfold for you. You have to stay alert to appreciate the nuance of what’s happening on stage, to pick up what character is being unearthed by which actor, and there’s a constant edgy undertone and expectation of something dark from nature, or an even darker element in human character surfacing.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Photo: Pia Johnson

You’re never allowed to get comfortable watching this, and rapid-fire changes in lighting and sound are particularly effective, and more than once cause a palpable shock to the audience. A scene that is etched in my mind was like an explosive illumination of Picasso’s Guernica, as a girl unexpectedly ran into a scene in a bloodstained dress, arms outstretched. And then it was all gone. Instantly dark, stopped, but not silent. A disturbing, almost wordless and hugely physical Gym scene graphically illustrated the primal rage lying just under the surface in these girls’ minds.

The cast of just five young female actors display towering confidence in taking on the many characters in the story. They appear at first in contemporary school uniforms, rather than the turn of the century apparel we might have expected, and the measured economy of their slow movements, echoed by sound, builds the atmosphere of menace with huge effect. A few subtle costume changes are all that is needed to further populate the stage with further credible characters, and the awkward stances in many scenes serve to highlight the darkness behind the lives of those like the neglected orphan Sara.

The ominous energy that Hanging Rock itself holds is conveyed almost entirely through sound. The elitist, suffocating and patronisingly colonial English atmosphere of the girl’s school arrives through the tone of voice and stiff body language of head teacher Mrs Appleyard, conjured up superbly by Elizabeth Nabben.

In all of this, there is a sense that the thin veneer of civilisation might disappear completely when it encounters the physical fact of Hanging Rock. The true horror in the story is that there’s a journey of physical danger and mental turmoil involved for these girls, and in trying to work out how or why they may have disappeared, we have to share that same danger and turmoil.

In summary, this is what you can deservedly call great theatre – where flawless acting, an innovative narrative structure, lighting, sound and set design all coalesce to leave a dark and lasting impression on the audience.

4 Stars

Click to book tickets for Picnic at Hanging Rock today
Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
13-28 January 2017 7:30pm   1hr25m approx