Picnic at Hanging Rock

Jan 15 2017 | By More

★★★☆☆    Uneasy

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Fri 13 – Sat 27 Jan 2017
Review by Hugh Simpson

Picnic at Hanging Rock, presented at the Lyceum by the Australian companies Malthouse and Black Swan, is a well-crafted production that is never quite as frightening as it wants to be.

Tom Wright’s adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel – about schoolgirls and their teacher who disappear in mysterious circumstances at a monolith on Valentine’s Day 1900 – revisits what has become an Australian myth. Largely due to a film version that is drenched in hazy sunshine and panpipes, the story has become so celebrated it is often assumed to be based on fact.

The cast of Picnic at Hanging Rock (Arielle Gray, Nikki Shiels, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben, Harriet Gordon-Anderson). Photo: Pia Johnson

This retelling takes a new approach, with the narrative shared out between five performers dressed in more modern school uniforms, who seem almost to have become possessed by the story. Throughout, there is a vaguely portentous air of unease– but despite considerable theatrical invention, it does not deliver outright chills.

Frequent changes of scene are accompanied by total darkness and while this (like the rest of Paul Jackson’s lighting design) proves spookily effective, it does serve to dissipate much of the atmosphere. The overriding reaction becomes one of admiration at how quickly the repositioning of cast, and the dressing of Zoe Atkinson’s huge box of a set, take place. This is coupled with a slight irritation at the ever-present sign above the stage that signals the name of the scene or reinforces some Very Important Dialogue.

Ash Gibson Greig’s electronic music, moreover, is also subject to the law of diminishing returns, becoming markedly less compelling through repetition.

outright shock

The structure of the piece also presents some problems. The lack of an interval is surely intended to preserve tension, but instead has the opposite effect as attention starts to wander. While there is at least one moment of outright shock that works extremely well, the atmosphere of inchoate terror the rest of the production is clearly striving for is not always achieved.

Harriet Gordon-Anderson (as Albert) and Amber McMahon (as Michael) in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Photo: Pia Johnson

This is not the fault of the cast, who are impressive. Elizabeth Nabben’s portrayal of the repressed headmistress Mrs Appleyard and Amber McMahon as young Englishman Fitzhubert are particularly noteworthy, but the other performers – Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Nikki Shiels and Arielle Gray – are also arresting.

The way Gray contorts her body as damaged orphan Sara is representative of the way the director Matthew Lutton charts an intriguing course. The opening twenty minutes are static to an almost ridiculous degree, but gradually the production opens out into a physicality that is always threatening to explode into violence.

Similarly, Wright’s adaptation throws in the source’s questions of gender and sexuality, of colonialism and racial oppression, of the environment and humans’ relationship to a land that was there millions of years before them and will still be there after they have gone.

That such matters are not fully explored is not necessarily a problem. It is not much of a spoiler for anyone with knowledge of the story to say that this is not a play to appeal to anyone with a love of easy answers or pat resolutions. There are some moments of comedy that are trite and ill-judged, but these are rare.

Indeed, the ambition and intelligence of the production are commendable. The main drawback is that it clearly sets out to disturb, and does not manage to do so consistently enough.

Running time 1 hour 20 minute (no interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Friday 13 – Saturday 27 January 2017
Tues – Sat: 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed & Sat: 2pm
Tickets and detaisl: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/picnic-at-hanging-rock

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  1. Lyzzie Dell says:

    Spot on Hugh!!!

  2. Suzanne Senior says:

    I would go even further, Hugh, as I really didn’t like it.

    It jarred right from the start when the headline for the scene stated it was 1900, yet the girls were dressed in what looked to be George Heriots school uniforms! I’ve since heard that they weren’t supposed to be the characters at this point, but it wasn’t made clear on stage. The storytelling was good at the beginning but it was like a radio play and was far too static for far too long.

    As time went on I got progressively more annoyed as it was pretentious and un-involving, especially in the scenes between the headmistress and the disturbed girl who strikes awkward poses in an unnecessarily dramatic fashion.

    Compare this with Our Ladies of Of Perpetual Succour, in which similar narrative devices were used. Unlike here though, that was funny, moving and had real heart. With this, I was so bored that I was only sorry my watch had no light so I couldn’t see how long it was until it had finished.

  3. Tara Penski says:

    I expected great things from this Australian theatre company, was thrilled at the chance to see a theatre production of this great story (loved the film) in Edinburgh, but I was disappointed.

    It was very pretentious and clunky, verging on almost amateurish, which is such a shame. The actors overacted and shouted, which jarred. The first 20 minutes of storytelling consisted of reciting (or so it appeared) the novel with ‘he said, she said’ from each actor (this really got on my nerves).

    The set was awful. How dramatic and dreamily eerie is Hanging Rock (I have been), a beautiful place, but the set was bare, which to me smacked of either laziness or lack of imagination.

    I heard it suggested that the director/writer wanted to allow the audience to ‘imagine’ but it didn’t work.

    I noted that there was rarely any ‘breaths taken’ within the 90-minute piece, meaning that I (and possibly other members of the audience) was left exhausted. The actors shouted their lines and over-dramatised every single word, without a breath, like a big rant.

    I hated the neon instruction over the stage of what the scene was about – marking a line from that scene with which to connect. Again, it jarred.

    What struck me most though was that this was a very pretentious attempt to be ‘avant-guard’ but without the judgement of whether this was the right story for that sort of thing. It wasn’t/isn’t.

    I had no clue as to why the girls were dressed in modern uniforms, no understanding as to why they were men one minute, girls the next. And I don’t lack imagination.

    I think the problem was the writer – the actors were good, but over-acted probably – the script veered almost into science fiction sometimes and took too much, obviously, from the novel, with its excessively descriptive paragraphs.

    Anyway, what a shame. A haunting story that could have been more simply told, with a better set, better music and space to allow the audience to savour the themes.