More than a century ago, a group of schoolgirls disappeared at Hanging Rock.
They didn’t really, of course, except in Joan Lindsay’s classic novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and in the subsequent film adaptation by Peter Weir. But the missing girls have burnt themselves into our collective consciousness. It’s the quintessential story of the Australian colonial nightmare: British migrants desperate to hold on to civilisation as they know it in a wild, untamed landscape. It’s our national coming-of-age story.
It’s hardly a surprise we keep coming back to it. A new theatrical adaptation from Malthouse Theatre opening this week promises to remind us again why it still matters.
“It’s a big part of the Australian psyche, and a lot of people will bring a lot of memories and misremembering to the show,” says director, Matthew Lutton. “So we have to work around that while we make people see it with fresh eyes.”
Lutton, working closely with writer Tom Wright, has ensured the adaptation carefully follows the novel’s thriller tendencies. But he keeps one eye on the bigger themes, which give the story its lasting potency: colonialism, eroticism, repressed sexuality and the pervasive terror of the Australian landscape.
“It’s set in 1900, when our Englishness was just being plastered over,” says Lutton. “And we had a very ignorant way of engaging with our new landscape.” Ultimately, Malthouse’s take on Picnic at Hanging Rock is about that tension.
The show’s presentation is bold: five women, credited simply as “performers”, take charge of all the parts, sharing roles, voices and characters in the guise of contemporary schoolgirls telling the story of Valentine’s Day at Hanging Rock.
One of those women, the youngest, in fact, is Harriet Gordon-Anderson, who was hand-picked from her graduating class at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. “Matt decided, really bravely I think, to audition third-year girls at WAPA for the role,” says Gordon-Anderson. “I’m straight out of school, so I’m sitting there grinning in the rehearsal room with all those seasoned actors. I’m just soaking it all up.”
Gordon-Anderson’s interpretation of Picnic is Australians grappling with their Australian-ness. And it’s still relevant because we’re still going through that identity crisis. “I think it speaks to the discord of English settlers in this country trying to find some kind of new identity for Australians, and realising that it’s impossible, because they’re just not the first Australians,” says Gordon-Anderson. “We tried to impose a new structure on something that was already so itself, but we just couldn’t understand it.”
“Everything is trying to burst out of its containment,” agrees Lutton. “All the central characters are right on the cusp of an adolescent transformation, but it’s also about a country on that cusp – a country trying to grow up.”
“We’re only now realising how exhausting [the play] is to perform,” says Gordon-Anderson. “At every given moment there’s tension, intensity and the obsession with finding the answer to an unsolvable mystery. You don’t have closure. Things go missing, and you get no release.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock opens on Friday February 26 and runs until March 20.