Wednesday 18th November 2020, 7:30pm, New Theatre
Sahn Millington (Director) brings together five incredible performers to tell the classic mystery of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. Blending the simplicity of Tom Wright's adaptation of Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel with modern technology of surtitles to headline the acts, the late Victorian era tale connects with the 21st century audience with ease.
While many audiences will be familiar with at least part, if not all, of the story of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, either through the original novel, Peter Weir's 1975 film adaptation, or the 2018 television series version, for those less acquainted with the story, it reads as an historical account but is in truth a work of fiction. The dark mystery focuses on the disappearance of a group of girls and their mathematics teacher from a rural Victoria boarding school for girls from well off families during a Valentine's Day picnic to the nearby Hanging Rock in the year 1900.
Tom Wright's adaptation condenses the story to five performers (Megan Bennetts, Alice Birbara, Alana Birtles, Audrey Blyde, and Sarah Jane Kelly) who narrate and reenact the events in a stylized expression. While both the characters and the story are initially bounced between the performers, with no single actor voicing a character, after the disappearance a more traditional style of an actor retaining a character is adopted, reinforcing the legend quality of the events before the shift in the story. The performers all skillfully navigate the range of voices, from the refined role model student and the whiney complainer to the rough coach driver. Once the characters become anchored to a performer the story also shifts from recounting memories of a story to more scenic work and the nature of the period becomes even more pronounced with the British origins of most of the characters becoming more obvious in contrast to the reminders that they are far from England, no matter how much the homes may be fitted out to feel like home.
Set designer Victor Kalka plays on the simplicity of Wright's adaptation with simple paper bark 'trees' representing the untamable Australian bush that forms an implied backdrop to the story. Leela Landers plays on Wright's transition of more contemporary schoolgirls recounting a tale of days gone past with the use of a contemporary private school uniform. After the turning point, new characters like Michael Fitzhubert (Alice Birbara), the Policeman (Audrey Blyde) and Albert (Sarah Jane Kelly) are introduced as representations of the era, with Irma (Audrey Blyde) essentially not being the same person who returned from the rock, while existing characters like Mrs. Appleyard (Megan Bennetts) and Sarah (Alana Birtles) remaining as they were before the disappearances. The work is set to Patrick Howard's sound and AV design of a soundscape of Australian bush noises of birds and wind through trees along which is blended with Georgia Condon's compositions for cello (Medhat Boulos) and vocals (Madeleine Wilde, Laura Gongolidis, Issy Glover and Georgia Condon) which adds wonderfully to the suspense of the work. Louise Mason's lighting design helps shift the story between the stark and rigid school to the mystery of the bush all while keeping the background trees illuminated enough to remind the audience of the remoteness of the events.
New Theatre's PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK is an engaging piece of theatre that tells the story in a simple yet no less suspenseful way that will have audiences wanting to reconnect with the original text. Well worth seeing this strong work from five female performers who BroadwayWorld Sydney looks forward to seeing on many more stages.