First published in The Times, Tuesday January 17 2017
The title is perhaps most familiar to international audiences from Peter Weir’s acclaimed 1975 film adaptation. For this stage version, Tom Wright, the playwright, has returned for inspiration to Joan Lindsay’s source novel, about a trio of Australian schoolgirls who, along with their elderly teacher, vanish without trace while on a Valentine’s Day outing in 1900. The production, from Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company, directed by Matthew Lutton, is flawed, at times overwrought, but at its best it provokes the same shiver of disquiet as Weir’s woozily frightening movie.
Lutton’s production, which is currently receiving its UK premiere at the Lyceum, is bookended by its two most beguiling sequences, effectively a pair of extended monologues, rendered in an urgent present tense and shared out among the excellent five-strong ensemble. We first glimpse the girls in their straw boaters and blue, red-trimmed blazers, arranged in a tight row against a backdrop of grey, wood-panelled walls. The image is wholly at odds with the landscape and fauna of Hanging Rock, scene of the notorious picnic, which is covered in trees and bracken and alive with geckos, insects and spiders.
As this opening scene, and the girls’ description of the events leading up to their classmates’ disappearance, intensifies, so the sensuous language in the script brings the mysterious, desolate rock into sharp focus. The references to stiff lace against perspiring skin and heavy skirts dragging in the dry grass, also conspire with the production’s other elements (including Ash Gibson Greig’s insinuating music, crisp sound design by J David Franzke and the weird sculpture composed of dry branches that looms over Zoë Atkinson’s set) to dramatise Lindsay’s exploration of the defining tension in Australian culture, between a colonising people and an ancient, unknowable landscape.
While, gratifyingly, the central riddle remains unresolved, the middle section of Lutton’s production, in which plot is given preference over disquiet and place, is less assured. Subplots, including the victimisation of a disturbed pupil (Arielle Gary) by the school’s headmistress, Mrs Appleyard (Elizabeth Nabben), are underdeveloped, and the intermittent springing of visual and aural shocks, feels a little gratuitous The return to a simpler, though compelling, focus on language and performance in the final scene, comes as something of a relief.