Emotion, violence and meaning bubble up like magma in Malthouse Theatre’s scrupulously presented take on Joan Lindsay’s 1966 novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Mythic in its scope and magical in its appearance, it would be misguided to view this as genre horror theatre. It is much more interesting than that. Tom Wright’s adaptation, directed with precision and attention to detail by Matthew Lutton, is about coming to terms both with a land so ancient it goes beyond comprehension, and with the guilt of a colonial past.
In the book, a group of boarding school girls go missing during a day out at a local beauty spot, on St Valentines day, 1900. Lindsay’s novel had a patina of reality which made many believe it to be based on a true event – a fact which Wright uses to frame and set up his own telling of the story.
Wright’s narrators are five modern-day schoolgirls. They use words in a precise and forensic way, creating the setting as they advance, step by step across the bare box of the stage in the play’s opening scene like a line of police searching the earth. The morning of the picnic, sees heat and animal life brimming beneath every surface, and the sensual tensions behind every pampered girl’s movements become the backdrop. At the forefront is Hanging Rock, an ancient place of ritual and awe, fingers of rock rising out of the bush.
Lutton’s direction hones the ensemble, weaving the five schoolgirls’ descriptions seamlessly together. Zoe Atkinson’s set is minimal, a claustrophobic, misshapen wood-panelled doorless room, into which performers and props seem to materialise during the complete blackout between scenes.
The technical aspects of the production are exemplary. J David Franzke’s sound design mixes an ambient bush soundscape with Ash Gibson Greig’s electronic underscore, to add tension while masking distracting noise. Paul Jackson’s lighting provides an illusory depth to the stage when necessary.
Wright and Lutton give the whole a curiously male gaze. Miranda, the refined beauty and leader of the boarding school girls, is seen through other’s eyes, notably English tourist Michael, who Amber McMahon gives a distracted outlook – glimpsing the girls once but traveling back to attempt to find them.
And the real horror of the picnic is revealed, not as some mysterious or magic power of the land, but the class and attitudes of the time, in 1900, when children not of a certain class were seen as expendable.