In his introduction to Picnic at Hanging Rock, a new co-production with Australia’s Black Swan State Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre, the Lyceum’s Artistic Director David Greig urges us to ‘huddle round the theatrical campfire.’ It is these hearkenings to the primitive and the primeval that makes the Lyceum’s retelling so spine-tinglingly effective.
Adapted from Joan Lindsay’s 1977 novel – a story now elevated to status of an urban legend buried like a prescient hatchet deep in the Australian psyche – Picnic at Hanging Rock tells of the disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher in 1900, during a day out at the titular and ominous Hanging Rock, Victoria. Spooling through time, space and the razed minds of those left behind, the girls’ vanishing summons a larger horror: the violent struggle to civilise an unknowable land, and the malleable, myriad definitions of freedom.
In its simplest form, this production of Picnic is a storytelling. Five actors populate the stage in generic schoolgirl uniform, and relate the tale of Hanging Rock to us as if reading from an auto-cue above our heads, barely interacting with each other, surrounded by a dark wall that suggests both containment and wilderness. In horror though, less is often more, and through these five exhilarating performers, the audience find themselves hooked and breathless, hypnotised almost – just like the girls of 1900 as they climbed towards their deaths.
Tom Wright’s script is lyrical and minimalist, carrying us along in its cold, sucking eddy for an increasingly oppressive hour and a half. His writing is crafted so exquisitely we almost forget about it – the beating of our hearts becomes all; the nervous peering of our eyes; our bodies, frozen and hoping to remain unseen in the darkness of the auditorium.
Providing traces of the monster that stalks us, Ash Gibson Greig’s soundscape turns the bird-calls of the Australian outback feral and threatening, creeping into our heads and making the hairs on our arms stand on end. It’s the breathing of the untameable Australia that crouches at the very back of the Lyceum stage, barely visible but always threatening, thrusting it’s bulk and its horror against the porous, ineffectual walls of civilisation. Everything about Zoe Atkinson’s stark, surrealist design exists for the audience to project our fears onto; our most primitive terrors of the dark and the unknown. The only special effect in use here is the juxtaposition of light and dark – almost everything else is left to the audience, and the result is genuinely terrifying.
The performances from the five actors (Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shields) carry the same sense of hyper-reality. Every word and moment is measured and resonant. The entire cast is devastatingly present as they recount the story, until eventually they seem almost possessed by the missing girls, characters seeping between them, batted around the stage like cricket balls. In the story as onstage, they are everyone and no-one; everywhere and nowhere. But the real triumph is how Director Matthew Lutton moulds a performance that allows the audience’s experience to mimic that of the performers’ onstage, and blur the line between the fear experienced by the characters and that we experience trapped in the auditorium.
Together, these expertly wielded theatrical elements create an atmosphere that is both visually and psychologically bludgeoning. The production chillingly recreates the stark, clam incongruity of the nightmare. Horror and grief seep, slither, crawl and loom over every moment.
The most primitive and petrifying of our fears made manifest onstage, Picnic at Hanging Rock is an absolute triumph of the dual power of theatre and horror to manipulate our realities and leave us haunted not by ghosts, but by our own imaginations.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is on at the Lyceum in Edinburgh until 28 January 2017. Click here for more details.