Saturday, 2 April 2016

Picnic At Hanging Rock - Black Swan State Theatre Company & Malthouse Theatre (1 April 2016)

1900. Valentine’s Day. English style gentility meets the ferocity of the Australian landscape as five private school girls recount the details of a mystery that will traumatise a community and grow into legend. Three girls and their governess disappear that day. One is later found but has no recollection of events. Another who turned back is unclear of what happened. The fifth girl, an orphan, did not go on the excursion but meets her own tragic fate. What hold does this ancient land have over the naïve newcomers who attempt to conquer it with arcane codes of civility and properness?

In many ways it’s an impenetrable mystery heavy on atmosphere and symbolism but short on closure. It’s interesting then that director Matthew Lutton and playwright Tom Wright (adapting from Joan Lindsay’s novel) have chosen to present the theatrical version as Australian gothic horror. It features outstanding sound and lighting design (J. David Franzke and Paul Jackson respectively) augmented by composer Ash Gibson Greig’s haunting flourishes. The results are startling. It is easily the best use of the Heath Ledger Theatre space I have seen in the last few years.

Set designer Zoe Atkinson has wisely restricted the spacious stage area with black walls forming an irregular shaped triangle, the base of which is the front of the stage, creeping into a darkened apex upstage left. Hanging over upstage right is an ominous, large bundle of sticks and brush, an ever present reminder of the harshness of the land. The other notable element is a voluminous wardrobe in the middle of one wall. We never see Hanging Rock itself but its presence is concisely evoked in the precise language.

That language is finely delivered by the five actresses - Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shiels - who all inhabit various personas throughout the recounting of the tale. From the adolescent school girls to an array of other characters both male and female, they are excellent in clearly delineating each person through accent, posture, and aided by costuming. There is complete clarity as to who is in each scene. It is an impressive ensemble.

The play starts with all five of them in a line detailing the events of that fateful day. A rhythm is established as dialogue and characters are rotated seamlessly between them, building in intensity until a jarring black out as the girls, onstage and in our imagination, disappear into the wilderness. It’s a technique that is filmic in nature and repeated often. The stage completely dark and then the next scene bursts into full light, immaculately presented like a beautifully composed frame. Then slam cut to black to unsettle and build atmosphere and tension. The speed and precision of the transition from scene to scene is superb and attention grabbing.

Discordant, insistent sound adds to these transitions and suggests the horror elements implicit in what may have occurred up at the rock. The aural landscape is subtly presented as sounds of the bush intrude. The attention to detail is immaculate with one sequence including the crunch of gravel underfoot in time to the actress’s movements.

Each scene has a title displayed above the stage. I found this superfluous and a little distracting. So much skill and effort had gone into crafting the sense of place and time that these headings felt perfunctory by comparison. The wardrobe, symbolic of the portal between worlds and of the gap between dreaming and reality, was ultimately revealed to have a more practical application. This diluted its own silent mystery.

The use of a tumble mat for a sequence involving a mini-trampoline (useless physical movement) felt out of place, somehow too modern. It also cluttered the space taking away from those beautifully staged ‘frames’. More critically it anchored the last stanza of the production as Lutton could no longer deploy the razor sharp scene transitions and slam cuts to black as the mat was too big to move quickly.

This robbed the production of a clear stylistic choice just as the narrative itself began to meander to a somewhat tame conclusion. In this the expert use of so many devices to ratchet up the tension is let down by the anti-climactic nature of the ending. There are also some late shrill moments that felt tonally out of place such as the attack on the returned girl by other students desperate to know what happened.

Putting these few issues aside, director Matthew Lutton has presented a visually and aurally compelling production with an excellent ensemble of actresses. The stagecraft on display during this sole preview was exceptional and is sure to enthrall Saturday’s opening night audience. The show is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre and runs until 17 April.

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