There’s a moment about midway through Malthouse and Black Swan Theatre’s adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock that is properly, genuinely, authentically terrifying. Do you remember that very first jumpscare in The Woman in Black? Remember how nerve-shattering that felt? Well, take that and double it on the scare-o-meter.
Matthew Lutton’s compelling take on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel provides one of the most startling jolts to the nervous system that I’ve ever experienced in a theatre setting. Still, there’s a problem with jumpscares, isn’t there? Repeat them a second or third time, and you’re faced with diminishing returns. Thankfully, Lutton knows this. What his production delivers instead is a carefully controlled exercise in slow-burn dread that relies as much on the judicious use of stillness and silence to as it does on the gothic stylings of the production’s horror-genre leanings.
Picnic at Hanging Rock deals in vanishings – both real and imaginary. It’s a whodunit (or whatdunit) without the final revelation or moment of closure. Though there is very little evidence to suggest Lindsay cribbed her story from any real-life account of missing children in the Australian bush, the story of Miranda, Irma, Marion and Miss McGraw’s inexplicable disappearance in the Macedon Ranges has nevertheless taken its place in our collective consciousness as if it were an unalterable historical fact.
As the denizens of Appleyard College are swallowed up by the perilous landscape, drawn as if by some invisible magnetic force to the eponymous rock, there is another kind of vanishing at play in Lindsay’s story. This enforced and altogether more real vanishing lies beneath the story’s slippery surface and becomes conspicuous by its apparent absence from the play’s main action: the vanishing of the indigenous peoples of the Australian landscape, its aboriginal population and their culture, which remains disturbingly absent from view yet exerts an undeniable influence over the lives of these genteel colonialists.
Whilst watching Lindsay’s story unfold on-stage in 2018, my thoughts kept returning to the The Stolen Generations and the plight of aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families by the Australian state at the turn of the twentieth century. There’s an abiding sense in Lutton’s production that the vast landscape of the outback is exerting some psychic pressure on these wayward young girls – the descendants of previous settler generations – or perhaps exacting its own terrible revenge for the crimes committed against the indigenous population.
In this hypnotic and unnerving production, the events of Linday’s original novel become a hallucinatory fever dream. When the curtain rises, the schoolgirls of Appleyard College appear to emerge out of thin air, materializing and dissolving between bursts of abrupt darkness, with the bold blues and violent reds of their blazer uniforms startling us against the greyish-green of Zoe Atkinson’s sparsely decorated set.
Peter Weir soaked his 1973 film adaptation in soft-focus and sepia-tones, drinking in the sun-dappled surfaces and arid landscape of the vast Australian outback, but Lutton opts for something altogether starker in tone. The unembellished set-design provides a blank canvas that allows the rugged poetry of Tom Wright’s adaptation to conjure up an imagined landscape, one that feels far more alien, surreal and unnerving than the location of Weir’s film would allow.
From within this mental landscape, the production’s ever-mounting feeling of trepidation owes a great deal to J. David Franzke’s subtle and unsettling use of sound. Franzke’s sonic landscape conjures the primal underbelly of the Australian bush, from the rustling insect noises and the hum of cicada, to the cavernous, percussive rumblings of the earth itself.
The underlying ambiguity of Lindsay’s novel remains intact in this mercurial and slippery staging. Time contracts and compresses; memories gets muddied; suppressed desires go unspoken and unfulfilled. Meanwhile, the historical undercurrents of Australia’s colonial legacy haunt the edges, refusing to vanish, always looming.
Picnic at Hanging Rock was on at the Barbican. Click here for more details.