Picnic at Hanging Rock coming to Sydney stage

Promotional image for "Picnic at Hanging Rock". Photo: Aleshyn_Andrei/Shutterstock/Christina Hatzis.

Rita Bratovich previews the upcoming production of Picnic at Hanging Rock at Newtown’s New Theatre.

On St Valentine’s Day in 1900, a group of schoolgirls and their teachers from a private boarding school set out on an excursion to a large geological formation known as Hanging Rock. It was to be a day picnic and they intended to be home by dinner, but three girls and a teacher went missing. Only one of the girls was ever seen again …

Few literary works have embedded themselves into the Australian psyche as has Joan Lindsay’s timeless novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock. From the moment it was published in 1967, its haunting narrative and vivid imagery rendered it a classic. Lindsay’s writing is poetic, evocative and yet has authority and authenticity – so much so that to this day people still question whether the plot was based on fact. It was not. 

When Peter Weir released his cinematic adaptation in 1975, the film and the story became firmly entrenched in Australian culture. It is difficult for anyone of a certain age to hear mention of Picnic at Hanging Rock and not hear the hollow, eerie strains of the pan pipe theme, or the persistent cries of “Miranda! Miranda!” from one of the film’s iconic scenes. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock film trailer. Video: National Film and Sound Archives of Australia (NFSA)/YouTube.

Such reverence for a work often deems it untouchable. In 1987, the previously withheld final chapter was published after Joan Lindsay’s death. It resolves the mystery of the disappearance. Although it was part of Lindsay’s original manuscript, there was heated debate about whether it should have been released. People had taken ownership of the enigma and wanted it to remain just that. A 2018 series produced for cable TV was actually well received, although it was pretty much a shiny facsimile of the 1975 film. 

It is a brave person, then, who would consider an adaptation that reduces the novel to a raw, minimalist stage version, but playwright Tom Wright has done just that, with impressive results. 

Rather than try to reproduce the vastness of the setting or create a ‘true crime’ melodrama, Wright has distilled Lindsay’s work down to its essence: visceral emotions, altered reality, shifts in time. 

The play is written for five actors – all women – who take multiple roles, including male characters. The exclusively female voices suggest that it is the missing girls (or their ghosts) who are telling the story. They speak alternately as individuals and as a kind of Greek chorus narrating the story. 

Voice and movement are the key production elements of the play. They are used to establish setting, convey sentiment, build a sense of foreboding. It is predominantly through vocal expression and physicality that the actors indicate the gender, status, and age of their character. 

The girls wear school uniforms – contemporary at first and then period – but don’t use any sort of props to indicate other characters. 

There is a lot of stillness – actors recite their lines in the classical theatrical style, with concentrated focus on words and the significance of a given moment. 

Music and light are used to subliminally create atmosphere and help shape a scene. Occasionally (trigger warning for those afraid of the dark) there is complete blackness. No lights. Even the exit signs are covered. 

Time is a recurring motif in Lindsay’s novel. Clocks and watches stop or are broken, and there is a sense of bending dimensions around The Rock. Wright also manipulates time in his play, jumping across expanses, flexing perceptions, using arhythmic forward motion. By the end of the play audiences have been taken on a journey where, as Lindsay herself put it: “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right place and time.” 

Wright’s play made its debut in Melbourne in 2016 and was a resounding success. After travelling overseas to an equally positive reception it is finally going to premiere in Sydney at Newtown’s New Theatre. Sahn Millington will direct an impressive cast that includes Megan Bennetts, Alice Birbara, Alana Birtles, Audrey Blyde and Sarah Jane Kelly. 

The New Theatre is a warm, intimate venue, perfect for this performance, but with Covid-19 restrictions in place, seats are limited so get your tickets early. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock plays the New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown from Tuesday, 17 Nov to Saturday, 19 December. Tickets ($20-$35 plus booking fee) go on sale tomorrow – Thursday, 15 October – at https://newtheatre.org.au.

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