Picnic At Hanging Rock
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Seeing Tom Wright’s adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s iconic Australian story in its first run outside of its home country was a real treat. Although feeling apprehensive about the psychological horror I knew we were going to witness, I was excited, knowing that the cast had been on their long flight over just days before. A collaboration between Australia’s Malthouse Theatre and the Black Swan State Theatre Company, and directed by Matthew Lutton, this powerful retelling of the original story manages to create a well rounded and highly believable show using just five young female cast members. Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shiels pull us with them on a emotionally harrowing journey back to Valentine’s Day, 1900, when three schoolgirls and their teacher disappeared while climbing in the outback. Harnessing their incredible versatility and equally commanding stage presence, they created a compelling ninety minute performance.
The play opens with the girls narrating the story as a group of modern schoolgirls; their crisp, delineated school uniforms strangely bringing both an air of ancient authority and youthful freshness to their words. The modern uniforms are an enduring symbol of both belonging and exclusion, fittingly, as the play explores those notions of the fear of the ‘Other’; that ‘other’ also encompassing ‘unacceptable’ feelings within oneself. Wright’s script still hints at the tentative, metaphysical exploration into the mystical nature of Time that was central to Lindsay’s personal experience, that past, present and future are all one. It also underscored the continued relevance of the story, that we should wake up and pay attention, now we are faced with the devastating social, psychological and ecological effects of colonialism; the fractures in our psyche, our lack of unity as human beings and disregard for the natural world. This story, written in 1966 in a matter of a month, explores the damaging psychological effect of colonisation on the colonisers themselves. Perhaps the story lingers as an indelible stain on the Australian psyche because the history of a ruthless and violent near-extermination of Aboriginal people over centuries, is, on the whole, still repressed and denied.
It’s testament to the talent of all the actors, that they able to embody so many different characters between them, and make us believe in them all. Elizabeth Nabben is particularly mesmerising as the perfectly-accented English Mrs Appleyard the sadistic headmistress; her repressed violence hinted at from the start by the slightly excitable shine in her stare and the tightness of her lips. We never trust or care for Mrs Appleyard, even when she talks about loss of her husband and her frustration at being in an alien land that she despises. It’s hard to peel our eyes from her calculated and vicious abuse as we wish we could help rebellious but powerless, increasingly victimised and broken Sara. Arielle Gray’s twists and slumped body language draw out all our compassion, even without her deferential whispers and agonised whimpers, as we watch her try to survive against the odds.
With such a stark set and small cast, the actors use their voices extremely well, in order to create both variety and atmosphere. As their voices become higher and faster in tandem with the increased sharpness of the discordant music, just like a classic horror film it creates both anxiety within us and a heightened sense of urgency in the atmosphere. Something foul and distressing is about to occur or be revisited, flashing out of the darkness that descends between scenes. It almost doesn’t matter which, from future, past or present, suggesting, as Lindsay did, that distinctions between them are purely a mental construct. With no cathartic rituals of mourning, the colonists’ firm insistence that ‘Nightmares belong in the past’, does nothing to keep traumatic flashbacks of loss, grief and shock at the disappearances on the rock at bay. Denying personal and collective trauma in a form of cultural amnesia always leads to trouble down the line. With a slight descent into a deeper voice and English upper class accent, Amber McMahon transforms into Michael, the visitor obsessed with Miranda, and makes him a real and sympathetic character. In a way, the switching of voices and clothing messes with our binaries of male and female, made all the more interesting because of Lindsay addressing the repression of female sexuality in her book in the late sixties, her allusion to lesbian attractions, and now in this play the homoerotic frisson between the Englishman and Albert the Australian. Albert presents himself to us through Harriet Gordon-Anderson with a more marked change in body language, bolder, wider, with swag. He has a loose way of standing and walking, which shows his freedom as a male, and as an Australian man less constricted by colonial conventions.
There’s a awkward and poignant scene where Irma, played by Nikki Shiels, is trying to navigate a emotionally honest conversation with Michael (Amber McMahon) about their mutual grief at losing Miranda. We can feel their great trauma and loss as they are barely able to corral their emotions within the stifling arena of the constricting social mores of the time. The scene was so sensitively handled that you are rooting for them to present themselves authentically with each other but not to the point where they have a breakdown all over again and be deeply ashamed of their outburst. It’s easy to feel great empathy as the push and pull between both them and their own emotions and defences are so skilfully acted. Miranda is what brings them together as they compete in indirect ways about who loved her more. The simple but dramatic separation of her dainty tea cup from her saucer and splitting them widely apart hints at the loosening up of her own mind, or perhaps an signal that she might crack up completely? She tries so hard to make sense of what has happened to her, yet all she can come up with is ‘I think I am a replacement’ of what she once was. His woodenness increases in relation to her rising ‘hysteria’, acting as an anchor in an expected male Victorian way, and we can understand this as a psychological burden for men at a time of rigid gender roles.
The colonists have brought words for ‘things’, to name in order to ‘own’ what they can categorise, but they have no words to fully illuminate and navigate their emotional worlds. This bubbling magma of emotion finally erupts with vicious and alarming force in the gymnasium. This famously disturbing scene builds with an ominous portent, where we witness the girls’ natural movements regulated, forced and militaristic. Irma is violently attacked by the other girls for what she represents; their impending abandonment and her enviable yet unattainable freedom. This confrontation seems so real that it’s a truly horrifyingly visceral experience to witness. As Appleyard’s frustrations with trying to ‘civilize’ an immature Australia fully coalesce into uninhibited violence, we collectively cringe as she terrorises Sara with impunity.
Irma’s bold assertion that her admiration for Miranda’s loving, intuitive wisdom was far more influential than anything she has learned in school makes Appleyard crack with fury, and her volcano erupts through the fissures. Poor Sara, the most powerless of all the girls due to her situation, has been unable to escape Appleyard’s hatred and violence.The inevitable result of the fear, denial and emotional repression that go hand in hand with the upholding of a class system and the terrorization of Aboriginal communities is a death of spiritual wisdom. However, we are left with the enduring myth of ‘Miranda’ as a symbol of hope for the culture of post-colonial white Australia. Miranda, who loved St.Valentine, a female quasi-Christ, preaching love, communing with nature and valuing the intuition of the heart. We feel the collective pain of her loss, but knowing that true freedom comes from walking a pilgrimage of sorts; to surrender to that which is greater than us. That which cannot be ‘named’, but merely listened to.
Reviewer : Lisa Williams