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review of picnic at hanging rock

by Clive Lees

The whole structure of this play appeared designed to create a surreal, ambiguous and confusing atmosphere in which the sense of the preternatural and primordial natural world could rise up, engulf and consume the hubris of the imperious late Victorians.

The first surreal feature was that the names of the five characters in the cast list were never actually mentioned in the play. This is because they are in fact the names of the actual actresses who appeared in the original production!

At approximately 1 hour 20 minutes running time, the play is very short and could perhaps have been longer to allow for greater explanation of what was actually happening. Indeed, if you were not familiar with the original book, the play might have been hard to fathom. However, perhaps that was the point – the uncertainty allowing for the sense of the preternatural and mysterious to arise.

The play is a twist on the original book with the five girls in the play trying to resolve what happened to the girls in the book, but instead ending up recreating the deadly mystery in a ghastly nightmare.

The first 20 minutes or so of the play is essentially a spoken narrative which in my view did not give the cast the freedom to develop a dramatic dialogue between themselves and indeed with the audience. However, once the ascent of Hanging Rock had begun, the strong hallucinatory atmosphere began to develop, aided by an effective use of lights and sound, culminating in a genuinely terrifying moment (my skin literally crawled, to my surprise) when the character played by Bethan Boxall was lifted high above the heads of the other actresses to her doom! It was a very effective dramatic moment, very well realised by the director, cast and technical team.

Overall, this is very much an ensemble piece with almost all the cast being on stage almost all the time. Frequent swapping and interchanging of roles meant that it was sometimes difficult to identify and recall particular features of the performance. However, the effective use of accents, both Australian and up-tight British, was notable especially the stiff and posh masculine voice adopted by Bethan Boxall to play the role of Michael and of Jessica-Ann Jenner playing the rigid school teacher. The play was not without its amusing moments and a number of comical lines, appreciated by the audience, helped the play along.

The set was conceived well and used effectively – a three-foot rise in levels was enough to create a mountain range. Although apparently simple, the set took some effort to build so appreciation is due to the set building team.

The wardrobe team produced convincing late Victorian ladies wear, complete with bloomers. Indeed, the bloomers were essential – they-also doubled, when needed, as men’s trousers by the simple but effective expedient of revealing them by tucking the dress into the waistband. All the clothes were white, serving to emphasise the girls’ naivety and unpreparedness for what awaited them on Hanging Rock.

In the end, all the girls and their teacher meet their doom. What did it all mean? An interpretation might be that despite their sense of superiority, and indeed genuine achievement, the colonisers of Australia were no match for the primordial power of the vastness that is the Australian Outback. (Trivial pub quiz fact: – Hanging Rock isn’t in the Outback at all but in an area of rural housing!)