Review – Picnic at Hanging Rock: eeriness, mystery and suspense
Above: the cast. Right: Emma-Kate Reynolds as Dianne De Poiters and Aoife Kissane as Irma Leopold
Picnic at Hanging Rock
By Laura Annawyn Shamas
Based on the book by Joan Lindsay
Directed by Claire Argente
Brisbane Arts Theatre
Reviewed on January 25, Season ends February 16. Duration: 150 minutes including a 20 minute interval. Bookings: www.artstheatre.com.au or (07) 3369 2344
Back in 2013 I saw an impressive production of Picnic at Hanging Rock at the Arts Theatre which had been adapted by the late Carol Burns, so it was a bit surprising to see the current production had been adapted by an American playwright.
Nevertheless, the production still held the eeriness of the original book with all its mystery and suspense. Debut director Claire Argente did an excellent job managing a cast of 22 and Frances Foo’s period costumes were evocative of the early 20th century.
In the plot, Miranda is a popular student at a girls’ boarding school. One Valentine's Day, Miss Appleyard, the school's strict headmistress treats the girls to a picnic field trip to the popular volcanic formation called Hanging Rock.
Despite being warned of the dangers of wandering into the mountain, Miranda and several other girls venture off. It's not until the end of the day that the faculty realizes the girls and one of the teachers have disappeared.
But, as Claire Argente mentions in her notes, the play is not just the story of the missing girls, but of the aftermath effects on many people. Some of the girls pine for the much loved Miranda, English aristocrat The Hon Michael Fitzhubert becomes obsessed by the mystery, but most all Miss Appleyard suffers from gossip, falling attendance, staff resignations and the stigma of the event occurring at her school on her watch.
Sandra Harman played this role of a strong, opinionated woman descending into depression brought on by her own mental torture and she played it well.
Vital to the action are the schoolgirls and here they provided excellent entertainment. They all added individual foibles, insecurities and humour to their roles and even more importantly were all audible in some difficult conversation pieces. Eleanor Patch was excellent as the hard-done by Sara Waybourne and Krya Stratford-George was enigmatic enough as Miranda to be remembered well after she disappeared. But all the girls were impressive, in fact all the cast created believable characters
Emma-Kate Reynolds played the very Parisienne Dianne De Poiters well with the right amount of sophistication and some very decorative costumes.
I was not too enamoured by the set - an abstract angular design for the rock itself. It did not dominate enough. I would have preferred to see something more natural and menacing. I have been there and it is indeed a scary place where no birds sing!
After fast moving act one, the play faltered a little in the second act with many scene changes and a few lost lines as energy levels dropped. And the director chose what, for me, is an unsatisfactory finale. The disappeared characters appeared silently on stage and there was no curtain call. With so many short scenes, the audience wasn’t quite sure what had happened and were not able to show their appreciation to the actors, which was a pity for they deserved applause.