Picnic at Hanging Rock boasts a powerful all-female cast, that delivers an engaging and exciting experience, despite occasionally veering sharply from melodrama to comedy and including a few additional plot points that at times left the audience confused.
The play which is based on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay and was later turned into a powerful film, tells the story of a group of school girls, who disappear on an excursion on valentine’s day, along with their teacher. It deals with a number of themes around the concept of nature vs the attempts to replicate Britain in a highly aggressive and hostile Australian environment, as well as the oppressive nature of a traditional girl’s education.
Unlike the film, in which the landscape itself seems to become a character, this performance focuses much more on the inner life of the characters affected by a single disturbing event.
The play opens with a black painted stage, that remains the same throughout, while the characters narrate detailed descriptions of molten rock, snakes and spiders directly to the audience, bringing the brutal Australian landscape to life with words alone.
This device is a particularly affective introduction to the story, characters and the events of the faithful day the girls disappeared, though at some points it does feel like more of a radio play, then a theatrical experience. However, just when you might start to drift, the performers manage to grab your attention, with a dramatic change in pace. The sound design and lighting design also work keep you on your toes, at points creating a genuine sense of anxiety.
Where the play falls down slightly, is in its dramatic changes in tone and its twists, as we follow the different people and subplots connected to the missing girls. At times the story felt crowded and confusing, jumping from comedy to slightly bazaar homo-eroticism. This confusion is heightened by the continuous change in characters played by each actor, majority of time in identical uniforms.
The play really works when you are allowed to spend time with one character, played by one cast member and dwell on the mystery at the centre of the story. For example, the quest by the Michael to find the girls is rendered brilliantly, bringing to stage the disturbing creepiness that marked the film.
Despite its narrative issues, the performance and energy are captivating and you can’t help but follow the cast on this dark journey into the Australian outback.