The secret history: STC’s The Hanging

People disappear all the time.  Ask any policeman.  Better yet, ask a journalist…  Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually.
 – Diana Gabaldon, Cross Stitch

Since it first appeared in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock has been seared into our cultural conscience. Following Malthouse’s production earlier in the year – an adaptation of Lindsay’s novel, rather than of Peter Weir’s film – Sarah Goodes brings us Angela Betzien’s The Hanging, a contemporary take on the missing child story that has haunted us since the earliest days of white settlement. You can see it in the paintings of Frederick McCubbin, the claustrophobic vision of the untamed bush all around us, the impossibly high horizons and tiniest glimmers of sky too far away; you can see it in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Top of the Lake, and The Kettering Incident; in Hilary Bell’s Wolf Lullaby and The Splinter, in Jasper Jones, When The Rain Stops Falling; in the disappearances of the Beaumont children, Azaria Chamberlain and, more recently, Madeleine McCann. And while these events are in no way connected, they each capture our imaginations, and fuel our insecurities about possession, sexuality, colonialism, and our (lack of) control over nature.
Betzien’s play follows her recent plays Mortido and The Dark Room in the crime genre, and Children of the Black Skirt in her exploration of the Australian Gothic trope, and manages to combine the two genres within the frame of a crime thriller which owes several obvious debts to Picnic at Hanging Rock, as well as The Virgin Suicides, Heavenly Creatures, The Secret History, and The Catcher in the Rye. These nods do not detract from the story, nor the revelations and their ramifications, but act as a series of refracting mirrors, to bounce ideas and references off each other to create a new work that ripples with secrets, latent sexuality and its potency, as well as capitalising on the eeriness and terror of the Australian bush that has haunted our national psyche for centuries.

Betzien’s The Hanging is the story of a fourteen year old girl, Iris, who returned from the bush without the two friends she disappeared with six days ago. Interviewing her is Detective Sergeant Flint, a specialist in missing persons cases pertaining to children. Not wanting to talk to the detective, Iris nominates her English teacher, Ms Corrossi, as her support person, and soon a perplexing web of secrets, lies, half-truths, shadows, and cover-ups is exposed along with their dangerous consequences.
A taut three-hander, Goodes’ production unfolds upon a little shard of a room, barely big enough for a desk, two chairs, and a doorway, let alone three headstrong characters who oppose and mirror each other in surprising ways. Bisecting this tiny room, is a high sandstone wall, atop which the bush can be seen looming, silent, dark, brooding, waiting to swallow us up. Designer Elizabeth Gadsby has created a world which straddles the intersection between the real and the imagined, the common and the private, and uncovers the menace and vulnerabilities that haunt both the physical and mental worlds of these three characters. Nicholas Rayment’s lighting creates interrogational brightness and crepuscular gloom in equal measure, and the subtle modulation of both focuses our attention but also lets our imaginations run wild with ‘what ifs’ and ‘what happeneds’ right up until the final moments. Steve Francis’ sound design uses the sounds of the bush to create an enveloping menace which barely intrudes but never subsides; like the bush, it is always present, even if we are not looking at it or anywhere near it; it is still there. Francis’ brief pockets of music serve to craft the tension and the mood, and add menace and an eldritch foreboding which slips under your skin and doesn’t let go too easily. David Bergman’s video projections are perhaps the most direct visual nod to Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, as the three girls are seen wandering through the bush, their dresses and long hair drifting in a vaguely Pre Raphaelite manner; and while you could say these sequences are unnecessary – perhaps all that is needed is the bush itself, unmediated, and the birds to give us the sense of what happened – there is something unsettling about watching the girls get swallowed up by the bigness of the bush, and it brings Iris and Ms Corrossi’s fears to bear in chilling detail.
Ashleigh Cummings’ Iris is in one sense a naïve fourteen year old, but she is also discovering the power of her youth and sexuality, the power secrets and fragments of truth can have over others, people much older than her, and she relishes this. While Cummings seems at times too old for her fourteen-year-old character, she slips into Iris’ privileged world and mindset with a disarming ease, and her performance shifts and changes over the course of the play’s taut eighty minutes, and by the end of it we are hanging on her every word as we realise Iris perhaps holds the answers to the play’s conundrum.
Luke Carroll’s Detective Sergeant Flint is persistent and steely determined but never grandstands, and his restraint in some key scenes nicely undercuts the frustration and urgency of his enquiries and the story’s events. Like him, we are constantly parsing Iris and Ms Corrossi’s words to try to work out the true nature of what happened that day, what might have contributed to the girls’ disappearance, which – or whose – version of the truth is more ‘correct’.
Genevieve Lemon’s Ms Corrossi, the English teacher who unknowingly starts this devastating juggernaut on its unwavering course, is at first particularly passionate about language, but as the mood and power-balance in the interrogation room begins to shift, so too does Corrossi’s focus, and Lemon’s performance grows exponentially; by the conclusion she, like Flint, is at a loss as to what happened or how things might have been prevented or at least rectified. Underneath Corrossi’s prickly exterior is a warmth and generosity which the girls prey upon, a willingness that eventually has fatal consequences; yet, while Corrossi wields power as the teacher, it is her students who have a not-inconsiderable measure of power over her, and it is frightening and delicious in a single instance to see this played with by both Lemon and Cummings.
This is a production – a play – which is constructed like a series of concentric circles, like the solar system, in that each character is a planet, and as the cosmic mechanism of the play swings into motion, some move faster than others (Iris, particularly), while others start off slowly only to gather pace as they begin to piece it together (Ms Corrossi perhaps), and others occasionally synchronise their orbits with others, locking onto the gravitational pull of one or more planets and gaining a kind of clarity (Flint, and Ms Corrossi in equal measure). Like Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland two years ago, which Goodes also directed (and is remounting at MTC in a month’s time), there is a delicious cat-and-mouse game at play here, and it is edge-of-your-seat stuff trying to keep up with the unraveling of secrets and information, as Betzien drip-feeds us clues and snippets of truths; as Lemon, Carroll, and Cummings enter into each others’ orbits in turn. And although it is never really made explicitly clear, the date of Iris’ interrogation is crucial; being 19th February, if this is the sixth day following the girls’ disappearance, it means they went into the bush on 14th – St Valentine’s Day; the same day as that fateful day in 1900 that Joan Lindsay’s schoolgirls supposedly disappeared on.
Part of the attraction and indeed magneticism here is the way in which we want to know what happens – what happened, rather – at the same time as not wanting to; the mystery is everything. And I think this applies to Sarah Goodes’ work during her time as Resident Director with Sydney Theatre Company. Having spent the last six years directing new writing – in their world or Australian premiere productions – Goodes’ work has matured and deepened, and it has been a privilege to watch it grow and expand in front of our eyes. Starting rehearsals with a script which may or may not stay relatively intact come opening night is something which many directors would probably be apprehensive about. For Goodes it is “a chance to develop a close relationship with a writer and to work with them in refining the play for its first performance… The discoveries we make in the rehearsal room and in conversations about the text evolve in an organic, collaborative way that I find particularly exciting.” In short, the mystery of whether or not a play will work is everything. It’s the ‘leap of faith’ that Goodes talked about when I met her last year: “you don’t have a sure thing on your hands that you can then do what you want with; it’s a huge leap – if it’s going to work on stage, I don’t know – but that is the core of all theatre; that should be the core of where everyone’s at on the first day of rehearsal. ‘Is this going to work?’ ‘Who knows?’ It’s a leap of faith, and it’s got to have that in it for the magic to happen.”
When Ralph Myers directed Peter Pan for Belvoir a few years ago, he said how J.M. Barrie’s play “could secretly be a play about Australia – a world off on its own, full of oddities, constantly trying to leave its past behind. Australia, like Peter, has a wonderful and annoying determination never to grow up.” Part of me believes this is why we are so fascinated by the ‘missing child’ trope in our national art, literature, theatre, cinema; why stories like The Hanging keep being written. Our nation is the result of white Eurocentric ideas forced upon an unfamiliar (and quite often unforgiving) landscape, without a moment’s pause to consider the practicalities of our actions, or their ramifications on its traditional custodians. Yet, as old as the continent is, our nation is still quite young. There’s something harrowing and chilling in the way Betzien’s character of Iris almost comes to stand in for our country’s conscience – the fourteen-year-old girl, standing on the precipice of adulthood – especially considering Diderot’s comment in a letter to his young mistress, “You all die at 15.”
As in Lindsay’s novel, Betzien’s script makes reference to the Rock dreaming in millions of years, rather than decades or centuries like our own societal records. “In the Rock’s terms, 1900 and 2016 are the same… It is hanging – in time, in space.” In this sense, the Rock in both texts 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. By extension, in Betzien’s script as in Goodes’ production, the Rock and bush could be read as metaphors for teenage sexuality – full of unseen cracks and holes, deep dark secrets, mysterious energies and emotional forces beyond our control. These references – while perhaps slightly too obvious when you’re in the moment of the play – act as signposts, signifiers, mental triggers that serve to remind us just how truly unsettling and horrifying a story it is, how uncontrollable and untamable the landscape is around us, how powerless we are to comprehend it or stop it in any way.

As Goodes’ final production as a Resident Director at Sydney Theatre Company, The Hanging is an incredibly strong note to finish on. Betzien’s script is perhaps her strongest to date, and Goodes’ direction is not only clear and gentle as we have come to expect from her work, but it is incredibly strong and finely-tuned to the nuances of Betzien’s script, the world of the play, as well as the maintaining of suspense, thought, and action throughout, and this strength is mirrored in the three central performances. There is a robust and thrilling mind at work here, both in the writing and in the staging, and the production not only matches it but extends it, amplifies it, until it fills the Wharf 1 theatre with all the menace and power of the bush. It has been a pleasure watching Goodes’ work over the past four years and certainly one of the joys of keeping this blog, and as she takes up the position of Associate Director at the Melbourne Theatre Company next year, you can be sure that her future projects will be like Woolf’s Orlando – “filled with life – exquisitely… bursting with it.” 

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