Malthouse Presents Picnic at Hanging Rock

The disappearance of the turn-of-the-century darlings returns to Malthouse Theatre in Picnic at Hanging Rock 

By Leeor Adar

The disappearance of the turn-of-the-century darlings in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges has all the evocative appeal of a timeless classic: young school girls in their bloom disappearing into the harrowing Australian bush in a southern gothic fever dream.

As a young child, I shivered as I saw the great mass of Hanging Rock, where like many Australians I fell for the alluring tale of the disappearance of the women. When Joan Lindsay wrote the 1967 classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock, I wonder if she realised that audiences would come in droves to take a step closer to the mystery that never really was. Or was it? That is the question that rises in Lindsay’s readers and viewers of Tom Wright’s adaptation for stage.

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Photographs: Pia Johnston

Picnic at Hanging Rock is not the first tale to evoke the power of Australia’s sublime landscape, however its unfurling secrets of untamed nature in the face of impressionable young women barely buckled to their schooling is utterly sensual and unsettling.

Director Matthew Lutton has realised his best work in this timely February production of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Lutton’s cast is par excellence: Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shiels use their wiles and voices to such evocative effect that their words and physicality have the power to send the audience leaping out of their seats. This production hoists Lindsay’s language into haunting dramatic storytelling in such a way that I believe I am there with the girls, as the sun sets and the white of their dresses disappear into the rock forever.

Lutton hammers the horror to great effect, as the dark stage bares only an ominous mass of twigs and wood that is suspended above. The cast appear suddenly out of the black, and in the midst of this nothingness, the sounds of nature, women humming and discorded effects play out. A perfect storm strikes the stage by lighting design master, Paul Jackson, sound designer J. David Franzke, and composer Ash Gibson Greig.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a full-senses feast, and I am both terrified and drawn to the nightmare as it plays out before us. There are ample occasions of wit and excellent delivery from all performers, and Nabben’s turn as Mrs Appleyard is subtle and breathtaking, particularly in her last moments as a failed schoolmistress.

The tightly laced tension of teatime between Irma (Shiels) and Michael (McMahon) after the events on that Valentines Day at Hanging Rock, highlight the absurdity of the excessively civilised in the wake of traumatic events. This theme continues until there is no denying the significance of the schoolgirls’ disappearance and what that means for a society colonising an unfamiliar and dangerous landscape.

If you were fortunate enough to acquire tickets for Picnic at Hanging Rock, you will not be disappointed. The remainder of the run has sold out, and fittingly winds itself up on Valentines Day.

At Malthouse until, 14 February.

Followed by London season at the Barbican, 21 – 24 February.

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