Published in 1967 by Joan Lindsay and filmed by Peter Weir in 1975, the mystery of what happened on St Valentine’s Day 1900 at the picnic at Hanging Rock in central Victoria, just over forty miles north west of Melbourne, has passed so deeply into cultural consciousness that many are unsure whether the events actually took place or were entirely the work of Lindsey’s imagination, or perhaps a fiction inspired by a deeper truth.
The empty stage signifying the vast and near-barren continent, the wooden walls constructed around it are askew as though nothing quite fits, nothing is as it should be were this an ordered world, while above hangs a tangle of wood, branches and trunks and twigs, the spectre of the bush ever present yet barely referred to.
Australia is an old continent, “a thin layer of scum floating on a vast lava lake,” and the home of an ancient culture almost totally overwritten by the western settlers who pushed it back into the shadows, into the cracks between the rocks. Hanging Rock itself a solidified outpouring of magma over six million years old, the rock may now be heated by the unforgiving sun rather than geological forces but the sense of menace from beneath remains.
In their immaculate uniforms the girls of Appleyard College set out for their day trip under the watchful eye of mathematics teacher Miss McCraw; headmistress Mrs Appleyard specified they were to be back for eight, and driver Mr Hussey assured them he would keep close watch on the time, not realising until after the expedition had eaten lunch that his watch had inexplicably stopped at midday.
Climbing of the rocks had been forbidden as too dangerous, but Miranda, Marion, Irma and Edith set out through the grass along the river to explore the lower slopes followed afterwards by Miss McCraw, claimed afterwards to have been seen in an inexplicable state of undress, but only Edith returned and searches for the others found no evidence or indication of what might have become of them.
Directed by Matthew Lutton from Tom Wright’s adaptation of Lindsay’s novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock is performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh by the flawless ensemble of Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shiels having transferred from Black Swan State Theatre’s production at the Malthouse Theatre Melbourne, the five women slip in and out of narrative mode and between all the characters, the schoolgirls, the teachers, the police whose investigation proved futile.
While it sometimes becomes difficult to follow the plethora of characters this only adds to the atmosphere of dislocation and confusion, and certain powerful personalities do emerge, Mrs Appleyard’s frustration at her loss of control expressed in her taunting of the distressed orphan Sara whose tuition fees have not been paid and whose unruly behaviour meant she was excluded from the trip, the witness Michael, an English traveller who becomes obsessed with finding the girls he only glimpsed, his valet and confidante Albert who knows the land: “Nature doesn’t just take you, it obliterates you.”
A minimal presentation which at times feels more of a rehearsed reading than a full dramatic production, a series of tableaux of staid manners overlaid on a foreign land which will not accept the intrusion, there are moments which borrow from contemporary horror rather than the historical context of the novel, a flash of the Blair Witch in the night, Sara’s tortured contortions reminding of Sadako Yamamura as the surviving girls unravel and turn on each other as Mrs Appleyard’s cruelty overspills to the sound of subsonic bass rumbles and tortured violins.
Built not upon the ancient rock of that inexplicable place but the power of language to convey discontinuity and the loss of self under that wide, black starry sky, the girls, the school, the witnesses are all long gone, but Hanging Rock persists: “It is as though no human has ever been here on this solid ghost of an explosion primeval.”