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Picnic at Hanging Rock

"We are still fighting nature; we are still fighting ourselves"

New Theatre's production of this Australian classic arrives at poignant time in our relationship with the landscape, writes Sahn Millington.

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Category: Theatre
Company: New Theatre
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Picnic at Hanging Rock: Fighting Against Nature

Date: 3 Nov 2020

“Well, it was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery. If you can draw your own conclusions, that’s fine, but I don’t think that it matters. I wrote that book as a sort of atmosphere of a place, and it was like dropping a stone into the water. I felt that story, if you call it a story – that the thing that happened on St. Valentine’s Day went on spreading, out and out and out, in circles.”

– Joan Lindsay, 1974

Picnic at Hanging Rock – the novel and the movie – sit deep in the Australian psyche, despite the story not being true.

However, what I found interesting is that the novel is a story about what happens to the community and the residents of Appleyard College after the girls go missing. It is a story about those of us left behind. How the mystery of their disappearance resonated with characters months and years after. Like any tragedy, there are those that must live on, inevitability changed by the experience.

Like many Australians, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a story I have known since childhood.

It was the very first movie I ever saw. I was seven years old. Reading the book came some years later. What I find wonderful about Tom Wright’s adaptation is that he has stayed true to Joan Lindsay’s language which I would describe as poetic, visually strong, a little dark with a sense of the mystical.

I grew up riding in the Australian bush and feel a connection to the uniqueness of it – its loneliness and its harshness. The way sound travels and the distinctive way the light plays. Your imagination is toyed with when riding alone. The fear of being lost in our bush, of being ‘engulfed by it’, is a theme that runs through many forms of Australian art.

I also see our production coming at a poignant time in our own relationship with the Australian landscape.

We witnessed the devastation of the bushfires and the frustration around climate change or more to the point, the ineptitude of those in power to care about it. It is the contemporary challenge of Australia to reconcile itself to its land. In this era of climate change, and fear of a destabilised environment, the story could take on a new relevance.

Turn-of-the-20th-century white Australian society was still in the early stages of coming to terms with the continent; when Joan Lindsay wrote the novel in the 1960s, we assumed we had it under control. Today, we think we wish to live in symbiosis with the landscape, yet we seem to be destroying it. We are still fighting nature; we are still fighting ourselves.

White colonial descendants persist in asking our wild and unique country to yield. Just as Appleyard College bent and shaped (forcibly sometimes) teenage girls to be the ‘ladies’ 1900s society demanded of them. They were not allowed their true nature.

The cast could tell this story without the artifice of technology – the words are that powerful you can hear the snakes moving through the undergrowth, insects scuttling up trees and twigs snapping. Our design for this production has been strongly inspired by descriptions and sounds in the script itself. This was what appealed to me about the play, that, and the fact it takes risks and plays with time and theatrical styles.

My hope for the audience is that this is a theatrical experience both visually and aurally. We are drawing on the thriller aspect of the piece hopefully creating a chilling production that has audiences feeling it physically.

Tom Wright has not written a stage version of the movie but a non-naturalistic retelling and re-enactment of key moments in the novel and in reverence to Lindsay, his writing is within keeping to her language. With the fusing of multiple time frames, the sound, lighting, and the actors themselves we wish to create tension and keep an audience on the edge. It is a chance to create a theatrical experience of sight, sound, language, and silence.

Everything begins and ends in exactly the right place and time . . .

Picnic at Hanging Rock plays at the New Theatre, Newtown, from November 17 – December 19

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