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Theatre Review Enigmatic figures in an ancient Australian landscape

Picnic at Hanging Rock
Barbican Centre, London

ON ST Valentines Day in 1900, three teenage schoolgirls and their maths teacher inexplicably and permanently vanished while on a picnic to Australia’s ancient landmark Hanging Rock.

That fictional mystery, originally conceived as a novel by Joan Lindsay in 1967, was later the source for Peter Weir's film and has now been adapted for the stage in this production by Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre company.

The social and cultural contradictions of Australian society are implicit in the narrative and offer fertile ground for multiple interpretations. A vast land, undisturbed for millennia by external influence, Australia’s unique flora, fauna and indigenous culture has in the past four centuries been contaminated by colonial intrusion, exploitation and abuse.

In Picnic at Hanging Rock, it's manifested through the impact of an oppressive, alien and potentially hostile landscape on privileged white girls from a private school.

The historical imposition of English parochial class culture — an assertion of colonial arrogance — invites us to consider that the swallowing up of these concupiscent school girls into an ancient, almost sentient, landscape is perhaps a metaphor for the revenge of elemental nature and indigenous culture.

Under Matthew Lutton's direction, a strong ensemble of five women play multiple parts in what is a tense and atmospheric evocation of the mysterious events at Hanging Rock.

Superbly stage-managed, the choreographed performance is punctuated by dramatic blackouts punctuating the action as the audience is assailed by a seething and compelling soundscape created by J David Franzke.

It simultaneously soothes and unsettles — perhaps not dissimilar to Australia itself.



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