If such life-changing events sound like the stuff of sensation-seeking headlines in old time true crime magazines, this is possibly the effect Australian writer Joan Lindsay was going for when her novel, Picnic At Hanging Rock, was first published in 1967. Where a year previously Truman Capote had rendered real life events in novelistic form in his book, In Cold Blood, with Picnic At Hanging Rock, Lindsay flipped things on its head. By opening her book with an ambivalent disclaimer to authorial responsibility and ending it with a pseudo-historical newspaper report, Lindsay hinted that her carefully crafted fiction might have been rooted in turn of the twentieth century reality.
The fact that Hanging Rock itself is a real place has added to a mythology that caught the world's eye by way of Peter Weir's haunting 1975 film version of the book, which was at the vanguard of the 1970s new wave of Australian cinema. Even without the attention Weir's film attracted, Lindsay's story has become a similarly vital text in the country's literary canon, as the new stage adaptation of the book should demonstrate when it opens at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh next week.
“I think the film has put the story into the psyche of a lot of people,” says Matthew Lutton, who is directing Tom Wright's adaptation of Lindsay's book for the Melbourne-based Malthouse Theatre in a co-production with the Perth-based Black Swan State Theatre Company. “But even without the film, there's something there about wanting to solve this unsolvable mystery. There's something alluring about the girls and the landscape, and what happens to them in that landscape. Going back to the novel, we became really taken with the idea that the way Lindsay wrote it convinced people that the story was real. That immediately gave a theatrical aspect to the story, because it had created its own mythology.”
Part of that mythology stems from a more tangible sense of history.
“It's a story of colonisation,” says Lutton. “ Hanging Rock is an hour from Melbourne, and it feels like it's just hanging in mid air. You can quite easily get lost and discombobulated by it. It's also regarded as a sacred site and a place of gathering, but there's a real ignorance of that landscape. There isn't much literature about it, but for indigenous communities, Hanging Rock and places like it are places to mourn death, and Joan Lindsay's story is about our ignorance of that.”
While Lutton's production puts the girls at the centre of his production, the all female cast of five also play all of the other characters they encounter in a show that relies on the audience's imagination just as Lindsay relied on her readers.
“Early on, we agreed that the landscape would be communicated through language, and that we weren't going to put rocks onstage. It's something that's felt, and there's a strong element of horror that comes through. It's certainly the first piece of theatre I've seen that makes people scream.”
This approach tie in with what Lutton regards as Malthouse's status as Melbourne's home for alternative theatre.
“I think Malthouse challenges the status quo,” says Lutton, who has been in post as Malthouse's youngest artistic director for the last eighteen months. “Our work is quite political in terms of the way we retell or repurpose a story, and in how we explore the boundaries of theatre.”
Malthouse Theatre's connections with Edinburgh stem from shows such as Optimism, a clown-based version of Voltaire's novel, Candide, which the company brought to Edinburgh International Festival in 2009, and which was also written by Wright. The connection with the Lyceum came about after Lutton and the company saw The Events, playwright and now Lyceum artistic director David Greig's dramatic response to the mass murders committed in Norway by Anders Breivik. Greig's play saw local choirs appear onstage in the production, a device used earlier this year in Malthouse's own production of the play.
The company's take on Picnic At Hanging Rock isn't the first stage version of Lindsay's novel. In 1987, an adaptation by American writer Laura Annawyn Shamas premiered in the first of several international productions. In 2014, a musical staging of the story penned by writer/composer Daniel Zaitchik premiered at a university in Utah following several years of development. With a new TV adaptation set to air in Australia later this year, Lindsay's story continues to beguile and bewilder.
“I think it's very important,” says Lutton. “It very successfully captures a sense of Australian terror. Australia is a continent where all of its cities are on the coast with a centre that remains largely uninhabited, and many of us still don't know that centre. There are many stories of people entering that centre and going into psychosis. It's a landscape that is formidable and haunted, and I think Lindsay's story comments on what it means to be Australian at a very guttural level.”
If things had worked out differently, Picnic at Hanging Rock might not have left such a ,mysterious legacy. As Lindsay originally wrote her novel, a final chapter tied up loose ends in a way that leant more towards speculative fiction. On the advice of her editor, this chapter was removed from what was published, and only saw the light of day in 1987 as The Secret of Hanging Rock. Lutton, for one, has no truck with it.
“I think it's a terrible ending,” he says. “It provides an answer, and all of the things we've been talking about, about Australians not being able to find an answer, they would have been resolved, quite wrongly in my view. I'm convinced that if Lindsay's book had originally been published in that form so everything was understood, in terms of mystery and mythology, it wouldn't have had nearly as much impact.
“Joan Lindsay holds a very special place in Australian story-telling,” says Lutton. “Most of the stories that define Australia are dealing with the country's vastness, and I think when Australian TV or film try to copy American stories then it becomes urban. But it is in the vastness where Australian stories really connect in a way that you're either obliterated or humbled by it. There's something about the terror of that vastness there as well, and that has sometimes created a lot of cliches, but at their best, stories like Picnic At Hanging Rock are about having the confidence not to have to look abroad, but to help capture our culture, which is a post-colonial culture.”
Picnic At Hanging Rock, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, January 13-28.www.lyceum.org.uk
The Herald, January 3rd 2017