Friday, 4 March 2016

Picnic At Hanging Rock, March 2, 2016 ***

Adapted by Tom Wright from Joan Lindsay’s novel, by Malthouse Theatre
Merlin Theatre, Malthouse, March 2 until March 20, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
 This review is also online at Herald Sun Arts and in print on Fri March 4, 2016

This stage adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s compelling 1967 novel, Picnic At Hanging Rock, initially captures the enigmatic quality of the story that became part of Australian mythology after Peter Weir’s 1975 film version.

On a hot, St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, four schoolgirls and their mathematics mistress visit Hanging Rock for a picnic but only one hysterical girl returns after the others vanish while climbing the harsh, craggy rock.

In Tom Wright’s script directed by Matthew Lutton, five schoolgirls narrate this unfathomable tale in Lindsay’s evocative, impeccably crafted prose and conjure a parade of characters from the school and neighbouring town.

The five actors inhabit multiple characters, a device that heightens the sense of mystery and alienation and accentuates the illusive nature of Miranda, the fair-haired, ethereal beauty who leads the expedition up the Rock and whose name echoes hauntingly in our memory of the movie.

On a bare stage made even starker by Paul Jackson’s lighting, Lutton does not attempt to depict the Rock itself but paints with words locations such as the prim, English-style boarding school and the savage Australian landscape.

At the start, the performers address the audience directly but, as the baffling disappearance unfolds, they transform into various characters.

These include the preposterously haughty headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Elizabeth Nabben), Michael, an Englishman enamoured of Miranda (Amber McMahon), Sara (Arielle Gray), Miranda’s acolyte who missed the picnic, Albert (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), the earthy local boy, and Irma (Nikki Shiels), the dizzy heiress found unconscious on the Rock.

The ensemble is strong and all actors skilfully deliver Lindsay’s rich language while embodying characters that depict youthful hope, British arrogant superiority and raw, Aussie practicality.

Lutton’s production falters after Irma’s reappearance when shrill, almost hysterical performances and parodic characters replace the earlier subtlety and unearthliness.

The schoolgirls’ attack on Irma in the gym eliminates any essential sense of their fearful incomprehension, replacing it with bad, girl-on-girl scrapping and screaming that becomes comical.

The scene between Mike, the Englishman (McMahon), and Irma (Shiels), may be entertaining but it does not serve the story because it is played for laughs.

Lutton’s use of abstract movement, particularly Sara’s physical contortions to express her angst and fear, are often distracting.

This production of the much-loved, otherworldly story of Miranda and the others’ disappearance succeeds only in part but leaves one wanting to see Weir’s movie, read Lindsay’s book and call ‘Miranda!’ into the summer breeze.

By Kate Herbert

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