THEATRE REVIEW: Black Swan Theatre presents Picnic At Hanging Rock
Tuesday, 5 April, 2016, State Theatre Centre, Perth
Directed by Matthew Lutton
Starring Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Naben, Nikki Shiels
Reviewed by Shane Pinnegar
From a pitch black stage a ghostly wail, and then – with a loud silence – a lone schoolgirl gives us an eerie introduction into this infamous tale: Australia’s most infamous murder mystery story, or supernatural thriller, depending on your own conclusions.
Imagination is integral to the enjoyment of Black Swan Theatre & director Matthew Lutton’s new production of Picnic At Hanging Rock. Five extremely talented young ladies make up the cast, morphing between characters with very minimal costume changes, always lit by striking lighting design courtesy of Paul Jackson, and atmospheric use of sound (sound designer J David Franzke and composer Ash Gibson Greig) and props (stage manager Tia Clark).
When three schoolgirls and a teacher simply vanish from the eponymous outing on Valentine’s Day 1900 – one later being discovered by young Englishman Michael, though insisting she remembers nothing of the day – suspicions and confusion collide with dark undercurrents, the sexism of the times, and the “huddled monsters” (as the rocks are described in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel) are as much a suspect as anyone else in the story.
Lindsay herself went to great lengths to perpetuate the myth that the disappearances actually happened, never confirming or denying outright that that was the case. Peter Weir’s 1975 film further perpetuated the myth.
Accordingly, many – including this reviewer – thought this based on a true story, so deeply has it become ingrained in the Australian psyche, when in actual fact it is a wonderfully crafted fiction, and perhaps the first and most important evidence of an Australian Gothic literary style.
The story leaves much to the imagination: Was school mistress Mrs Appleyard somehow involved in the disappearances? Was local landowner Colonel Fitzhubert’s nephew Michael or valet Albert to blame? Did the girls abscond of their own free will? Is it a ghost story – or something out of science fiction, with a strong focus throughout the novel, film and this production of the fluidity of time, of wormholes and doorways in reality?
The point is not to find out the answer. The messages here are all in the journey: the contrast between the uptight English settlers and the ancient landscape; deep ponderances upon the nature of time; the never-stated-but-always-present tension between the burgeoning sexuality of some of the girls on the excursion and their childlike qualities (present in different balances in all seventeen-year-olds), and the prim repression of their keepers.
Black Swan Theatre’s production of Picnic At Hanging Rock is gripping, startling and confronting, with very real chills amplified by the excellent stage direction and acting from the five young stars.
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