Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – until 27 January 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Picnic at Hanging Rock, presented at the Lyceum by the Australian companies Malthouse and Black Swan, is a well-crafted production that is never quite as frightening as it wants to be. Tom Wright’s adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel – about schoolgirls and their teacher who disappear in mysterious circumstances at a monolith on Valentine’s Day 1900 – revisits what has become an Australian myth. Largely due to a film version that is drenched in hazy sunshine and panpipes, the story has become so celebrated it is often assumed to be based on fact.
This retelling takes a new approach, with the narrative shared out between five performers dressed in more modern school uniforms, who seem almost to have become possessed by the story. Throughout, there is a vaguely portentous air of unease– but despite considerable theatrical invention, it does not deliver outright chills.
Frequent changes of scene are accompanied by total darkness and while this (like the rest of Paul Jackson’s lighting design) proves spookily effective, it does serve to dissipate much of the atmosphere. The overriding reaction becomes one of admiration at how quickly the repositioning of cast, and the dressing of Zoe Atkinson’s huge box of a set, take place. This is coupled with a slight irritation at the ever-present sign above the stage that signals the name of the scene or reinforces some Very Important Dialogue.
Ash Gibson Greig’s electronic music, moreover, is also subject to the law of diminishing returns, becoming markedly less compelling through repetition.
The structure of the piece also presents some problems. The lack of an interval is surely intended to preserve tension, but instead has the opposite effect as attention starts to wander. While there is at least one moment of outright shock that works extremely well, the atmosphere of inchoate terror the rest of the production is clearly striving for is not always achieved.
Harriet Gordon-Anderson (as Albert) and Amber McMahon (as Michael) in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Photo: Pia Johnson
This is not the fault of the cast, who are impressive. Elizabeth Nabben’s portrayal of the repressed headmistress Mrs Appleyard and Amber McMahon as young Englishman Fitzhubert are particularly noteworthy, but the other performers – Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Nikki Shiels and Arielle Gray – are also arresting.
The way Gray contorts her body as damaged orphan Sara is representative of the way the director Matthew Lutton charts an intriguing course. The opening twenty minutes are static to an almost ridiculous degree, but gradually the production opens out into a physicality that is always threatening to explode into violence.
Similarly, Wright’s adaptation throws in the source’s questions of gender and sexuality, of colonialism and racial oppression, of the environment and humans’ relationship to a land that was there millions of years before them and will still be there after they have gone.
That such matters are not fully explored is not necessarily a problem. It is not much of a spoiler for anyone with knowledge of the story to say that this is not a play to appeal to anyone with a love of easy answers or pat resolutions. There are some moments of comedy that are trite and ill-judged, but these are rare.
Indeed, the ambition and intelligence of the production are commendable. The main drawback is that it clearly sets out to disturb, and does not manage to do so consistently enough.
Running time 1 hour 20 minute (no interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Friday 13 – Saturday 27 January 2017
Tues – Sat: 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed & Sat: 2pm
Tickets and detaisl: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/picnic-at-hanging-rock