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Picnic at Hanging Rock

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Five stars

Joan Lindsay's darkly gothic novel concerning a group of private schoolgirls who vanish without trace on a Valentine's Day outing in 1900 has haunted the Australian psyche since it first appeared in 1967. It was made even more ethereal by Peter Weir's film version nine years later. Given fresh life onstage by writer Tom Wright and director Matthew Lutton, this international co-production between Malthouse Theatre Melbourne and the Perth-based Black Swan State Theatre Company captures the essence of Lindsay's beautifully evoked mystery with a hypnotic staging.

At first, the cast of five women are lined up across the stage like maids in a row, their lives hanging in the balance as each pupil of the Appleyard Academy becomes the narrator of their own destiny. As they take slow-motion steps in unison while they talk, it is as if the girls are possessed by something drawing them beyond the fragile veneer of civilisation they so dangerously occupy.

This is the preface to a rapid-fire series of artfully arranged scenes, in which the acting quintet take on all roles in an atmosphere of looming hysteria played out on the expanse of designer Zoe Atkinson's perspective-shifting interior. As Hanging Rock itself becomes “a carbuncle in this anti Eden” as it is so evocatively described as at one point, the tight-lipped emotional desolation of head teacher Mrs Appleyard is offset by the burgeoning and unstoppable sexual awakening of the girls, led by dreamy Miranda.

The formally choreographed stage pictures at moments resemble something Pina Bausch might have dreamt up. Flashes of wordless shadowplay lean more towards the tricks of Victorian horrors. The splintered score of composer Ash Gibson Greig and creepy noises off provided by sound designer J. David Franzke heighten the mood.

Onstage throughout the play's slow burning eighty-five minutes, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shiels become teenage shape-shifters trying on identities for size beyond the walls that contain them. There is much going on here too, about the mysteries of a landscape that has lived several lives more than those who try to tame it. When the girls line the stage once more in a production that is as devastating as it is delicate, it as if they are taking a leap into an irresistible void in an experience designed to beguile.


The Herald, January 16th 2017

ends

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