Picnic At Hanging Rock at The Lyceum Theatre is a production from Australia’s Malthouse Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company that is based around the original and much loved 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay. This fictional novel written in a factual style has become an iconic novel in Australia and, for many of us, we are probably more familiar with the 1975 film which deviated somewhat from the novel and made the panoramic vistas of Australian outback itself the thing that many people remember from it. I have to admit to not having read the original novel, and the film was a long time ago for me, so this production is reviewed entirely on its current stage production.
In this production five modern day schoolgirls find themselves having an affinity by some form of possession almost to the original missing schoolgirls, schoolteacher and people associated with the events at that fateful “Picnic at Hanging Rock” on Valentine’s Day 1900. The girls gain insights into the events and almost “time-shift” back 116 years to re-live them through their connections to the original girls.
This work adapted by Tom Wright and directed by Matthew Lutton has on the face of it the potential to be a great Victorian gothic horror story, and it is being billed as a theatrical event of terror and suspense. The opening scenes of our five present day girls reciting the original events give us an instant connection of past and present and good lighting silhouetting their outlines against the right wall of the set (unfortunately probably not visible from the right hand side of the theatre) set us in motion for this trip into “Gothic Horror”. That unfortunately is about as far as the suspense and horror really go as this is a fairly basic story with really little gothic horror, terror or suspense in it despite the very best efforts of our cast – Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben, and Nikki Shiels. The biggest problem that we have on stage is identification of the modern girls (all dressed in school uniform) and exactly who they are connecting with from the past. In some cases such as Mrs Appleyard, headmistress of the original girls’ school Appleyard College this is obvious, but when our cast take on the roles of other girls, coach drivers, witnesses and investigators of the day, the multi part identities can get very confusing. Also a bit confusing is that the attraction and later relationship between one of the young English gentlemen who witnessed the girls at the picnic and the local buggy driver/stableman is indicated but never fully explained or explored.
The story here is told in segments broken up with the stage being blacked out and our overhead digital text display giving us a line to set the scene as if from a novel. This “blackout” effect works well in parts and seems to define not only locations, but time itself shifting (and that is a theme throughout the whole story). It also allows for some very slick stage props to appear and for our characters to be “re-set” in new scenarios.
There are many themes running through this story, the English colonial occupation of Australia is one recurring theme. This is an invading culture that really has no concept of the connection to nature of some of the places such as “Hanging Rock” or their mysticism to the locals. They are unaware (or at least scornful) of the belief in gateways to other realms, and are giving names for the sake of it to places which have never before had any known names (to them at least). Add into this their alienation in this landscape, and you can almost understand their attempt to re-create England in their new home. We are told “You can never be too English”, and this is the background from which our missing girls come.
Picnic at Hanging Rock the theatre production misses many chances to be a great Victorian gothic horror story. For some reason the idea that “The Rock” and the landscape around it are sitting upon a “gateway to Hell” and are a portal to other worlds and times is never followed up on here. The concept of some form of possession of the modern girls by the original people from 1900 is also left very under-developed. If you are going to do Victorian Gothic Horror you have to really set that feeling up in the minds of an audience and the confusion over the roles at times made that tension very difficult to create. Also, the very sparse set did nothing to help with this illusion.
One of the great under-used elements in this story was the actual Lyceum theatre itself. This building is a wonderful Victorian Theatre (opened 1883), so if any theatre should be the perfect home for a Victorian Gothic Horror setting then this is it. Also, that mixture of old theatre with all the technical equipment of a modern day theatre give you that instant “time shift” connection that this story itself was trying to achieve. This wonderful theatre offered great opportunities for this adaptation to really work that “Victorian” feel to the maximum, and it was not used.
Our cast really had too little story or time here (I know some people after the show were happy with the shorter time for many reasons) to really identify and establish any of the characters as unique individuals or explore properly their relationships with one another in any of the time frames. There are still a few interesting little story lines though and that is best left for you to experience if you go rather than have them outlined in a review here.
Overall, a good idea that somehow has got a bit lost in its own story telling and although everything may be clear to writers and cast, somehow that clarity was not transferring itself to the audience. This story had (and still has) the opportunity to be a great piece of Victorian Gothic Horror theatre, but at the moment is missing that mark.
Review by Tom King