Echoes of an Australian classic

Megan Bennetts (left) and Sarah Jane Kelly in the New Theatre's production of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Photo: Bob Seary.

Rita Bratovich visits the New Theatre and gets lost in the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The moment the first lines are uttered you are made cogently aware of the power of Joan Lindsay’s writing. In this stage adaptation of Lindsay’s iconic novel, much of the original text has been preserved, and it is the artistry, the genius of Lindsay’s words that helps fill the space with rich imagery and which impregnates the room with an uneasy sense of foreboding. 

Picnic At Hanging Rock has become embedded in the Australian culture. Both the 1967 novel and Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation were enormously successful. The intriguing mystery of three schoolgirls and their teacher who go missing on an excursion to a geological landmark was written with such authenticity that to this day people still wonder if it is based on fact. 

It is not a true story, yet it is more an allegory than a fiction. 

Alana Birtles (foreground) and Megan Bennetts. Photo: Bob Seary.

Tom Wright, thankfully, realises it would have been folly to adulterate Lindsay’s exquisitely crafted descriptions and dialogue. Instead, he has distilled the novel down to the essential story-telling elements, then fragmented it and distributed character and narrator roles variously among the cast. There are five young female actors on stage and they all play multiple characters, often interchangeably. The actors wear modern, private school uniforms throughout, using voice and stance to indicate different characters. Only two actors ever change into a completely different costume.

The set is sparse. At the rear is a cluster of tall, thin trees and there is a lone chair in the middle of the stage. Apart from occasional props, that’s it. Lighting levels and various filters help establish mood and place, with mottled shadows evoking the bush. There is no music – something that markedly distinguishes this stage version from the film with its unmistakeable soundtrack. The soundscape here is naturalistic, comprised of bird calls, cicada shrills and ambient noises. 

Sarah Jane Kelly (left) and Alice Birbara. Photo: Bob Seary.

The play begins with the five actors standing along the front of the stage. They take turns in delivering lines, unfolding the narrative and introducing characters. A fair chunk of story is told with the actors in this formation until finally they break apart and move around the stage, having arrived at Hanging Rock. 

Though, as mentioned earlier, the actors play characters interchangeably, they each tend to own at least one character. 

Megan Bennetts plays Mrs Appleyard throughout, managing to convincingly transform herself into a snobby, middle-aged English headmistress using only intonation and gesture. 

Audrey Blyde is the epitome of the ethereal, angelic Miranda, with her long blonde hair and penetrating eyes. 

Alana Birtles shrinks with timidity and vulnerability to become Sarah, Mrs Appleyard’s whipping girl. 

Alice Blyde (centre). Photo: Bob Seary.

Alice Birbira dons the traditional period dress of a male aristocrat to become Michael Fitzhubert, the recently arrived Englishman who spots the girls at The Rock before they disappear. Why only this character is given its own costume is not explained and adds something of an anomaly to the overall affect (though not spoiling it). 

Sarah Jane Kelly’s predominant character is also male but she does not change into another costume. She plays the blokey coachman, Albert, effecting the transformation with a well executed Cockney-like accent and lack of social grace. 

The characterisations are so convincing that when the actors come out for their bow at the end, you expect there to be more of them. 

Director Sahn Millington has drawn out stellar performances from the ensemble. 

Not all the choices made will please everyone; this rendition will equally divide those who are familiar with the original work and those who aren’t. 

What this stage production does do is use the power of Lindsay’s words to convey the central themes of the novel: the claustrophobia of pretentious society contrasted with the wild vastness of the Australian bush; repressed emotions and bitterness of ageing characters against the exhuberence and simmering sexuality of youth. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock plays the New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown, until Saturday, 19 December. Tickets ($20-$35) are available from newtheatre.org.au/tickets/.

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