Creepy fable Picnic at Hanging Rock is a vital part of Australian pop culture. The tale of a band of young English women who vanish into the alien Aussie outback forms the backbone of Antipodean horror culture. When STARBURST Magazine heard that an Australian theatre company had come to the UK to perform a version of the story, we were simply compelled to investigate. We were well rewarded.
This is an extraordinary, effecting and intense piece of theatre and you won’t want to miss a second of it. The Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh is the venue for this most extraordinary co-production by the Black Swan State Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre Company.
A modern-day schoolgirl (Amber McMahon) stands alone on a barren stage and welcomes us to Australia. The stage is plunged into darkness. A second later the lights snap on to reveal a now five-strong cohort of schoolgirls, here to detail the myth of their predecessors. Their straw hats shine in the light; halo-like. They are now the group of girls who went on a picnic and never returned.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a ninety-minute psychological horror piece of theatre that takes the audience through a sweeping journey encompassing the birth of a nation and the concurrent coming of age of the girls. The horror is the question of what may lurk in the outback, and whether it may be tamed.
One girl has been left behind: Arielle Gray compels as Sara; her performance delivered through deliberately inaudible dialogue and a physical dexterity that painfully portrays Sara’s psychological state. Elizabeth Nabben resolutely remains buttoned up in her school uniform as she portrays the school headmistress Mrs Appleyard; bullying the unfortunate Sara who seems to have done nothing more than resist attempts to transform her into the ‘English Lady’ others wish her to be.
After a few days, one of the girls, Irma, is found, dazed and confused. Nikki Shiels has the complex task of delivering the only female character to appear in Edwardian dress. She is literally as well as mentally confined; a decision which makes her bid to escape the set in the third act climax especially uncomfortable. Harriet Gordon-Anderson portrays Albert with nothing more than a swaggering manner and a distinct Aussie twang.
This is cosmic horror, brought to the stage in a most remarkable way. Just as we begin to grow comfortable with the stark stage and the intensity of performance, we are literally plunged into darkness, time and time again. The giant volcanic monolith in rural Victoria is an ineffable, unknown force. The production uses the unique intimacy of the theatre to evoke genuine chills. It is steady, thought provoking and brilliant. Picnic at Hanging Rock will haunt your dreams.
The technical aspects of this production are exceptional. The largely empty set is transformed in seconds; the soundscape adds dense atmosphere; the lighting is effective to create a sense of place and tone instantly. The direction by Matthew Lutton is taut; imaginative; obvious when needed to create a specific effect, but mostly unobtrusive in the differing characters portrayed by the actors; all of whom are utterly believable and distinctly realised. Go see it as soon as you can.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland until the January 28th. Follow @BlackSwanSTC or @MalthouseMelb on Twitter for further tour information.
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK / DIRECTOR: MATTHEW LUTTON / SCRIPT: TOM WRIGHT / BASED ON THE NOVEL BY: JOAN LINDSAY / STAGE MANAGEMENT: TIA CLARK, LYNDIE LI WAN PO / STARRING: HARRIET GORDON-ANDERSON, ARIELLE GRAY, AMBER MCMAHON, ELIZABETH NABBEN, NIKKI SHIELS / LOCATION: LYCEUM THEATRE EDINBURGH / DATES: JANUARY 13TH – 28TH