An impressive experiment with palpable discomfort
by Rachel Holkner
This new adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s classic Australian novel, written by Tom Wright and directed by Matthew Lutton, is a stylish exploration of the themes of time, space, alternate dimensions, past, present and future. And hanging over it all, an ancient volcanic rock and the intolerable heat of an Australian summer.
The play requires some familiarity with the story whether from the novel or the 1975 film by Peter Weir. With a small cast it is necessary to recognise quickly the various characters and their place in the story, as the performers often leap from one to another without overt costume changes. Surtitles present chapter headings throughout, granting the original 1967 text an unnecessary supernatural presence. It remains unclear whether the production intends to seat the audience inside the novel as it suffers a sort of intrusion of the present, or develop an entirely new interpretation of the ‘disappearing girls’ story.
An extended opening in the style of a school reading, grounds the work. Re-admittance to the theatre is not permitted after this sequence as the entire room is plunged frequently and suddenly into complete darkness. It is this darkness that carries the emotional burden, as the audience slowly learn to fear what it may bring. This is not a performance suitable for children or those of nervous disposition!
Just five actors take on over a dozen roles in a commanding fashion. While each has a part they default to, they switch with ease into alternate characters, sharing the burden of story-telling evenly. Of note are Amber McMahon as the visiting English gentleman Michael, and Arielle Gray as the unloved outsider Sara. The character of Sara was particularly well conceived, her body distortions and hurried whispers reflecting her state of mind and lack of autonomy. Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shields round out the cast with assuredness.
The sound design by J. David Franzke and composer Ash Gibson Greig ranges as wildly as the natural environment it is attempting to evoke. As tensions rise sound effects evolve from precise recreations of the bush to a barrage of noise. Discomfort became palpable as the audience grasped at any moment in the dialogue which might relieve the tension.
The play’s weakness is that it tries to encompass too many themes at the same time. The final act is muddled, the costume choices and staging do not carry enough conviction as all the ideas of nature, time, legacy and even gender are attempted to be resolved in the final few minutes. The successful use of light, shadow, sound and minimalist staging earlier on have been forgotten in a flat-lit confusion of props.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is an impressive experiment in bringing the colonial inferiority and fear of the environment of the late 19thC into the beginning of the 21st under the heavy volcanic overhang of millions of years.
Venue: Malthouse Theatre
Season: 26 Feb – 20 March