By Paul Kiely
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Adapted by Tom Wright
From the novel by Joan Lindsay
Directed by Sahn Millington
A New Theatre Production
542 King Street
Season: 17 November – 19 December. Duration: 85 minutes without interval. Bookings: www.newtheatre.org.au
To stand alone in the middle of the Australian bush can be an eery experience. Your senses become honed as they respond to the opposite of what normally sparks your instincts. Instead of darkness and quiet, full sunlight and the deafening orchestra of insect and birdlife deliver you to the border between fear and peace.
In the New Theatre production of Picnic at Hanging Rock, this sense of unease and eeriness dominates the 85-minute experience.
Besides the talent that produces the sights and sounds, there is an aura to this show that is rarely felt. And thanks must go to Set Design (Victor Kalka), Lighting (Louise Mason), Sound (Patrick Howard) and Composer (Georgia Condon) for tapping into the essence of Joan Lindsay’s classic Australian novel.
Adapted to the stage by Tom Wright, Picnic at Hanging Rock tells the story by way of narration and dialogue. On Valentines Day in 1900 a group of schoolgirls from Appleyard College in Victoria set out for a weekend picnic day at Hanging Rock, an unusual geographical formation created during prehistoric volcanic activity. In exchange for a day of relaxation the girls must, of course, write an essay on Monday morning of the knowledge gained from the excursion.
We are told at the beginning that “Australia is a thin layer of scum floating on a volcanic lake” and that “we sleep on a sea of flame”. And so, with this imagery in mind the plot thickens (as they say). Four of the girls, (Miranda, Irma, Marion and Edith) decide to go and explore the Rock. All you need to know is that only one returns, unable to explain where or how the others disappeared. As a fellow picnicker Mike later recounts “since coming to Australia I have become an expert on nightmares”.
Under the Direction of Sahn Millington the cast is terrific as many roles are shared by the five actors (Megan Bennetts, Alice Birbara, Alana Birtles, Audrey Blyde and Sarah Jane Kelly). They switch characters as often as their accents with a variety of monologues in Scottish, English, French and Ocker styles. Credit to the Costume Designer Leela Landers as well.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is an unusual and surreal tale to convey. It is not action packed. Its strength lies in the fabulous imagery which the words and theatrical magic are able to portray.
It is a mystery, and its ending is largely up to the observer to decide. Are there earthly explanations, or are powers beyond our comprehension at work?
Well done to the New Theatre. A worthy production and one you will enjoy!