Hanging in Suspense

Review of Picnic at Hanging Rock 24/4/2018


Audiences in search of an intense surreal atmosphere don’t have to go too far, especially as human voices help to create it. While it may be no party, Picnic at Hanging Rock at the Abbaye de Neumunster leaves audiences somewhat puzzled, yet intrigued, due to its non-linear narrative, and echoing sounds, with philosophical questions about time running through it like a sub-text.

With four talented young actresses, director Tony Kingston and producer June Lowery must have had their hands full, especially since each of the five actresses played multiple roles, as specified in the play by Tom Wright, adapted from Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Along with clever set design, which incorporated beautiful turn-of-the-century period furniture, lighting was used to good effect to match the somewhat surreal story-line. Posited as historical fiction at first, the novel leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The audience was swept along to a picnic at Hanging Rock (based on hills near Melbourne, Australia) with four young girls of good families, and their teachers. However, things go awry when they go for a walk up the Rock, and three of them disappear. The rest of the play deals with boiling tensions and speculations as to what might have happened to them, and rippling effects on the lives of other people who’d known them.

With multiple strands of overlapping stories, the narrative shifts through time and space. Grounded in various people’s subjective reality, the script explores many questions about time, social structure, and classes, education, and female issues of Australia in 1900. Though not plot driven, the story is open to many interpretations. Joan Lindsay, the author of the novel dabbled in mysticism, and may have channelled these interests in her work. For example, is this ancient land reclaiming the flowers of the colonizers i.e. these girls? Perhaps the land cannot speak, as its history and natives were suppressed by the colonists.

In 2017 a Miranda Must Go campaign was started by a PhD student, Amy Spiers who wanted to highlight the sad history of the Aboriginals in the region, and draw the public’s attention to their displacement and forced disappearance. Strangely enough, in the 2018 Luxembourg Film Festival, Sweet Country, told from an Aboriginal perspective won the Critics Award. In director Warwick Thornton’s film, the beautiful scenery of Australia was in clear contrast to the brutal treatment meted out to the Aboriginals in 1929. Perhaps they’ve finally started to speak out on screen. In terms of surreal drama about missing girls, the 2014 Danish film, Jauja comes to mind, though the setting and context are quite different.

While Picnic at Hanging Rock has been adapted into other media, such as films and a TV series, the visceral experience of watching the story unfold on stage is another matter altogether. The intense screams, or surreal chanting and murmuring, add to the immediacy of the live event: of thrumming in the moment and stepping into intersecting dreams or nightmares, as the case may be. The lighting and music conspire quite successfully to grip the audience and transport their attention to the inner and (sometimes eerie) outer landscapes of the characters. Stepping in at the right moment at the right pitch and volume, sound helps to heighten or reduce tension in the scenes.

In the opening scene, when the blue ribbon on a girl’s hat matches the blue-grey of the background, it’s obvious that this is a well thought-out production. One is in for an aesthetic treat. As usual, BGT’s flawless attention to detail comes across, speaking volumes of the amount of research, planning and care that goes into every aspect of their production.

As always June Lowery’s performance exhibits a wide range: from being the strict headmistress Mrs Appleyard, to glimpses of the suppressed individual driven to increasing melancholy and hysteria, to the vulnerable female, flailing around, as the world as she knows it, collapses around her. Yet, June Lowery manages to balance her acting so finely, that it’s hard to know the extent to which one should sympathize with her Mrs Appleyard.

Gina Millington shines as both a school girl, and as Michael Fitzhubert, a young Englishman. While Martina Sardelli might not have had a huge problem acting as a young teen, she managed to be quite convincing as a French teacher too. Celine Planata’s coyness as Irma Leopold may have walked out from pages of the novel. New-comer Laura Lizak’s vocals range from screaming to hysterical chanting. Her body language is just as effective as her facial expressions.

A social drama, a period mystery, a school thriller, or a fantasy? The narrative expressed effectively by the five actresses (who play fifteen characters) add to the scene and atmosphere, enhancing details of both the story, and the characters. The lecturing by Mrs Appleyard is so convincing that the listeners can’t help feeling sorry for the girl getting it. However, unlike Sara, the audience won’t come out starving, as they’ll get plenty of food for thought.

-The End-

-Sultana Raza

For booking tickets on the 25th and 26th of April, or finding out more information about Picnic at Hanging Rock please visit: