Picnic at Hanging Rock

‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is a pseudo-historical, Gothic story written by Joan Lindsay, a playwright and painter who was born Joan à Beckett Weigall in St Kilda East in 1896. With a Judge for a father, and a maternal grandfather who was Governor of Tasmania, she was certainly born with a silver spoon in her mouth. On marrying Sir Daryl Lindsay, Joan became Lady Lindsay whilst still in her twenties. Being childless at her death, her home, along with her and her husband’s paintings were presented to the National Trust. Lindsay still has nine written works unpublished.

 The play was adapted for the stage, three years ago by Melbournian Tom Wright, on behalf of Black Swan and The Malthouse.

 Incredibly, she was in her seventies before this play was published. Although the story reads as a true event, only the Hanging Rock is true. The final crucial and resolving chapter of the book was posthumously published in 1987, being called the ‘The Secret of Hanging Rock’. (SPOILER alert – clue, time warp)

 This highly respected play is being presented by the Darlington Theatre Players, at the Marloo Theatre, Greenmount each Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at the NEW EARLIER time of 7.30, until Saturday 16th March. A Sunday matinée at 2.00 pm on 3rd and on 10th March.

 The scene: St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, at Appleyard College – a girls’ aristocratic boarding school, near Hanging Rock (which is a mamelon – a plugged, extinct volcano) 70 kms north-west of Melbourne.

 The set was designed by Owen Davis: The theatre has a very high proscenium arch, which for this show was ideal. It allowed a massive granite cliff to be constructed on each side of the stage, forming a narrow pass in the Rock. The colour and surface of the rocks were most realistic. In the centre of the stage was a 4 metre by 4 metres, art gallery-style gold picture frame; On the opening scene it showed a picture of the last school picnic at the rock some 30 years earlier. This picture disappeared and the framed black cloth acted as a screen for the title of each scene. The black picture looked like a void, or black hole with the vertical slot in the centre it allowed the characters to come and go – to another time? The numerous period props were supplied by Lesley Sutton.

 Shelly Miller’s lighting was beautifully designed to give maximum creepiness. In one scene the Headmistress walked across the theatre in front of the stage, and a series of fixed spotlights individually followed her as she went. The subtle music was ethereal, an amazing choice. Guy Jackson and Rob Whitehead designed the sound. The understated sound effects presented us with a soft wind passing through the gap in the rocks – or was it in fact the rocks breathing? As they wafted the children into the void. The reference to time is emphasised with the tick tock of a Grandfather clock.

 The stage management was swift and efficient thanks to Jade Gurney and Chelsea Cook, who were ably assisted by Charlotte Meagher and Jonathan Masterson.

It is 1900, and one of the schoolgirls (Suzy June Wakeling) tells us how cruel and uninviting Australia is. The first two scenes are spoken as monologues, with a dozen characters talking to the audience, explaining the happenings of the fatal day. Mrs. Appleyard (Elizabeth Offer), the school’s headmistress and owner, is a haughty and uncaring woman that life has passed by, so now relies upon her medicinal drinks and bullying poor thirteen years old Sara (Lilian Alejandra Valverde, amazingly aged only 16) for her pleasure.
The coachman, Albert Crundall (Rachel Vonk), drops the children off at the Rock. They have their picnic lunch, then Miranda and her schoolfriends, Edith, Irma, and Marion climb the monolith. The mathematics mistress, Miss McCraw follows behind them. Soon, Edith is rushing down the hill shouting that Miranda, Marion, and Irma have all vanished, only to find that Miss McCraw has also disappeared. All the school’s children search but no one is found. Suspecting abduction or kidnap, the police (Brittany Isaia) are called in without a successful resolution.
The second Act begins at the first picnic, 30 years earlier, as depicted in the oil painting on the school wall. A young man (Suzy June Wakeling) explains to the audience what a cruel place Australia is. There then follows a similar series of events to 1901, with girls of the same name and many characters with matching circumstances. Could these possibly be the same people we have already met? In a different time? The snooty headmistress is losing children, either by disappearance or being withdrawn by the parents because of the poor education. Even the faithful but frightened domestic staff are leaving.

 I have seen this play / film three times before, and always left saying ‘What a load of rubbish. No end. No idea what that was about!’ Reluctantly, I travelled 45 minutes to see this ‘dreaded play’. However, with this new adaptation by Tom Wright, and five magnificent performers playing several parts each, they clearly postulate what happened on that fateful day. At last the story meant something. Director Rob Whitehead has full comprehension of the play and has the talent to bring it to the stage.

 Marjorie DeCaux’s costumes for the first Act had the girls in a brown school kilt, white blouse, brown tie and a straw boater. These outfits were worn for the whole Act, irrespective of the person they were playing. In the second half the girls wore crinoline and lace, with the headmistress wearing a silk gown. One girl wore a man’s tweed outfit. Perfect.

 Rob has chosen a magnificent cast. Each girl (they actually about 21 yrs. Old, not teenagers) was required to change characters, accent, gender, and mental state several times throughout each Act. Each performer did this with perfect pace, clear diction and conviction. Jaw dropping, flawless performances despite the tongue-twisting script.

 One final tip. Wear an incontinence pad, you will need it.

 This show is bound to receive several award nominations. So glad that I got to see this special version of the unique story. An outstanding production and a MUST SEE.