Picnic At Hanging Rock

Tom Wright

Malthouse Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Group

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

From 13 January 2017 to 28 January 2017

Review by Seth Ewin

Based on Joan Lindsay's 1966 novel, which is set in 1900, this production takes you back in time to a day of strange events. It's not easy watching and don't expect ends to be tied up.

The story of girls and a teacher disappearing on a school trip has been made famous in print and on film. It deals with the ideas of white newcomers in a wild, strange landscape. 

While the horror genre might be more closely associated with film, the stage has long and scary history of thrilling audiences. A tradition by no means dead, with The Woman In Black proving a never-ending hit.

Picnic At Hanging Rock though is not in the same vein as The Woman In Black; it is more subtle and cerebral in the way it strikes fear. In many ways it is more a successor to Priestley's Time And The Conways with its unsettling distortions of time.

The play begins very simply with the five actors as schoolgirls narrating the events of Valentine's Day 1900. They go on to play not only the girls but the many other characters involved. Despite minimal costume changes, these changes are very clear.

The stage is a grey box, starkly lit, claustrophobic and exposed at the same time. The only real attempt to create the untamed wilderness: a large bundle of brush looming in the dark behind the walls of the set.

The production though is far from sparse; it's a very textured production thanks to the script, the cast and slick use of sound and lighting.

Blackouts and brilliant floods of light with the cast and crew nimbly changing the scene, serve to keep the audience on their toes.

The actors play many parts but Amber McMahon and Harriet Gordon-Anderson as male onlookers of the event and Elizabeth Nabben and Arielle Gray as a sadistic teacher and pupil back at the school particularly stand out.

It is an unnerving production flickering between different images and different times. Harsh lighting changes, loud music and sounds, but also silence add to the somewhat alienating feel of piece.

The play is over relatively quickly, but it packs a lot in with short scenes, some just moments, images without dialogue.

I heard some people say that the production could have been scarier. Which is true; there were moments that made the audience jump and they could have easily gone a little further with the shocks.

However I think that would be too easy; more haunting is the weirdness and mystery that the production conveys, true to the original novel.