Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock

0071 LR Arielle Gray, Nikki Shiels, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben, Harriet Gordon-Anderson. Picnic at Hanging Rock. Image by Pia Johnson

Picnic at Hanging Rock | Black Swan State Theatre Company | Heath Ledger Theatre  

Until April 17th |  ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is a challenging story to adapt for the stage, it carries more baggage that a drag queen at an airport.

Many people will have read Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel which is filled with detailed descriptions of flora and the weather.

If you’re of a certain age, you may have seen Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation that was filled with pan pipes, flowing dresses and dappled sunlight. If you grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s you might have been subjected to it hundreds of times.

Director Mathew Lutton’s telling of the story casts aside its previous incarnations and thanks to a tight script adaptation from playwright Tom Wright, it’s a suspenseful and gripping thriller.

This co-production with the Malthouse Theatre has already enjoyed an acclaimed season in Melbourne and now Perth audiences have the chance to see this outstanding show.

A spare stage is the setting for the tale, a performance space that is walled in with no apparent exits or entrances. The lights cut to an impenetrable black darkness, when the lights flash on a few seconds later five school girls stand on stage, as if they teleported in.

Rather than have a separate actor for each role, five exceptionally talented performers play all the parts, switching from being schools girls, to teachers, to policemen, to English gents in whirlwind speed. In a syncopated world slam the performers begin to introduce us to the world of a boarding school and a fateful picnic to the Hanging Rock.

Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shields all deliver exemplary performances, one weak link in this cast would have spelled disaster for this cleverly produced show.

Equally as rewarding is the work of set designer Zoe Atkinson, Lighting Designer Paul Jackson and the soundscape created J. David Franzke and score by Ash Gibson Greig. These elements fuse together to create a flawless atmosphere and staging.

Also deserving acclaim is the backstage crew for this production. As the lights suddenly turn the stage into a dark oblivion, seconds later the whole stage set up changes when the bright lights return. The choreography of the performers and the crew must have been rehearsed to military grade timing.

Wright’s structuring of the story put’s the disappearance of the schools girls and teacher all within the first act of the 90 minute production.  This effective structuring allows the work to focus on the aftermath of the event and explore the effects it has on the different characters.

Lutton has created a work that is incredibly suspenseful, and at times it will have you sitting on the edge of your seat, if not jumping out of it. It’s a genre of storytelling that theatre rarely explores.

‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is famous for its open ended conclusion, but this production will leave you wondering about much more than missing school girls. It opens the gates to some deep philosophical questions.

A superb production, and an adventurous choice for Black Swan as they celebrate their 25th year.

Graeme Watson


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