Review: Malthouse’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’

16 March 2016

‘Ambitious’ is an apt word to describe the Malthouse Theatre season for 2016. Featuring powerful psychological classics The Glass Menagerie and Edward II, as well as famous novels adapted to the stage such as War and Peace and their current production, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Watching the film as an eight year old, I was utterly petrified by the myth of the missing schoolgirls and Tom Wright’s adaptation is by no means less eerie, particularly thanks to the excellent sound design by J. David Franzke.

The play opens with a stark light on a single schoolgirl wearing a broad straw hat, her isolation on the stage apart from her long shadow already creating a sense of apprehension, making me whisper, partly in awe and fear, ‘Miranda’, as visitors to the Rock today can’t help but shriek.

Immediately, it is clear that director Matthew Lutton has made some powerful decisions in terms of staging and transition. The adaptation is highly fragmented, with each scene separated by a complete black out and night bush sounds that are chilling in their inconclusiveness. If Lutton’s aim is to explore the rock as a site of mysterious transformation, it is this soundscape that conveys this unknown creature. You think you hear a cicada but it disappears so that you can’t be sure what it is you heard – unlike the panpipes employed in the film, which provide a manufactured eeriness. Perhaps it is these moments that are the most powerful in the entire play as I found myself sitting the back row, feeling like I had to look over my shoulder, waiting for the darkness to end but also in fear of what would next appear on stage. I say appear, for characters rarely enter or exit, trapped within the confines of the stage, just as the girls are within the rock and the imposed “Englishness” of society.

With a cast of just five women, I was initially very impressed at their ability to assume multiple roles and genders, such as the pretentious headmistress Mrs Appleyard (Elizabeth Nabben), however these characterisations, particularly the accents for the male characters, did falter as the play progressed.

And this was not the only flaw that emerged. The chilling early scenes of schoolgirls crawling away from the audience or playing hand-clapping games in the gloom were, with the return of Irma, replaced with incongruous scenes that seemed like an awkward attempt by the director to pull the story into a modern setting. Where was the need for the sudden booming electronic music? The gymnastic jump routine? The catfight? And Irma’s final screech “I need to get out of this f**king country!”?

Nevertheless, I would still recommend the production and commend its success in grappling with the text’s multiple themes of human transiency, time, adolescence and isolation in a way that is for the most part thoughtful and relevant.

Showing at the Malthouse Theatre until March 20, under 30s tickets $35

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