Terror Firma: Malthouse’s Picnic at Hanging Rock

The story of Picnic at Hanging Rock is seared into our collective conscience, and has become a key part of our national mythology as both a thing of beauty and a force of terror. Written by Joan Lindsay in 1967, the story tells of a group of young women, students from Appleyard College, who have a picnic at Hanging Rock on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, and inexplicably vanish during an afternoon expedition. Filmed by Peter Weir in 1975, the story was fast-tracked into our cultural imagination, and has become an iconic story that plays upon our insecurities about possession, sexuality, colonialism, and mankind’s control over nature. Now, in the hands of playwright Tom Wright and director Matthew Lutton, Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre brings Lindsay’s novel to the professional stage for the first time, and capitalises on the story’s eeriness and terror, as well as its latent sexuality and potency.

Set on an angular grey-toned space (Zoë Atkinson), three walls with nothing but a wardrobe to distract the eye, there is something ghostly about the lack of any discerning features. But of course, that’s almost the point. There are suggestions of doorways within the walls, but we never see them; additionally, while we seem to be outside – at and on the Rock – we ostensibly remain within the confines of the school building, always being watched even if don’t know when or why or by whom. Above and behind the stage is a cluster of branches, occasionally seen, an ominous presence hanging in the void. Part of the terror of this production – as in Lindsay’s novel, and Weir’s film – is what is not seen, and Lutton and lighting designer Paul Jackson make full use of this with total blackouts which plunge the theatre into claustrophobic darkness. Ash Gibson Greig’s compositions – tortured cello and double-bass (ala Krzysztof Pendrecki), organ-sounds, and reverberating drones – are deeply unsettling, and when combined with J. David Franzke’s sound design, the effect is truly and deeply spine-chilling, and makes full use of the sounds of the Australian bush.
The five girls here – it is, appropriately, an all-female cast – are dressed in modern private-school uniforms, and are something between contemporary teenagers, a Greek chorus, and the characters from Lindsay’s novel – male and female, young and old alike. We start in what we assume is the present day, as the five girls – in straw hats, blazers, skirts, long socks – recount to us the events leading up to the disappearance on the Rock. So far so good. But as we are plunged into the first of many blackouts, we start to lose our sense of what is normal, of what will happen, and indeed how it will happen. And this is where Lutton’s production draws its strength. The five girls seem caught out of time – both from our contemporary time, as well as that of 1900; as Tom Wright writes in the program, “in the Rock’s terms, 1900 and 2016 are the same. It dreams in millions, not split fractions. It is hanging – in time, in space.” In this sense, the Rock is a portal, a gateway, a liminal place – to another dimension perhaps, to another time, to sacred and spiritual places we can barely fathom; it is also an emotional force, our emotional past from which we cannot hide.
Lutton’s cast are very strong – as convincing as teenagers as they are as their teachers and other adults (male and female). There’s a magnetic quality to Nikki Shiels’ performance, and particularly as Irma – we don’t always want to know what is happening, but we also don’t want to look away. Elizabeth Nabben’s elocution in her portrayal of Mrs Appleyard is extremely affective, and there is a tangible menace to her scenes with Sara. Arielle Gray’s Sara – all whispers and shyness – is affecting when subjected to Mrs Appleyard’s abuse, and her bodily contortions are perhaps physical evocations of the Rock, as both a psychological force, a force of nature, as much as an imagined space. Amber McMahon is strong as ever, and there is an eerie distance to her portrayal of Albert.
Part of the terror present in Lindsay’s novel and also present in Lutton’s production, is in the psychological torture – amongst the girls themselves, and towards Sara, the youngest girl, who was not allowed to go on the picnic on that fateful day and was thus spared the full extent of the day’s events, but who was subjected to a greater form of torture by Mrs Appleyard herself. Sara, in a way, becomes a surrogate for the audience – we are subjected to the myriad images and snippets of information which Wright and Lutton throw at us. We are also afforded glimpses of the landscape around the Rock, of the Rock itself; of the landscape of Lindsay’s novel, of our cultural association with the novel (and subsequently the film); of the psychological landscape of the imagined space…
There is something genuinely (and intangibly) unsettling about this story, about this production, and Lutton and his team capitalise on it to full effect. There is one moment in particular – roughly two-thirds of the way through – which is the closest to full-blown horror that this production gets, but it is never gratuitous or forced. Another moment might seem physically and sonically incongruous but it is leavened out by the production’s surety and dexterity. There are critics who will argue that third-person narrated theatre is perhaps over-used, but it has its benefits here: as we are told the story, told snippets of information, only to have it twist and shift under our feet, in front of our very eyes. And so the narrated events become a metaphor for the psychological turbulence of the story itself – we never actually know what actually happened because each account is different.

Purported to be ‘a true story’ by Lindsay, the question of whether or not the events of St Valentine’s Day, 1900 actually took place is best answered by Lindsay herself, perhaps the most authoritative voice on the subject: “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.” Lutton’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is, appropriately, its own force of nature. And while there are several nods to Weir’s equally beautiful and haunting film, they only serve to remind us just how truly unsettling and horrifying a story it is, how uncontrollable and untamable the landscape is, how powerless we are to comprehend it at all.

No comments:

Post a comment