Picnic at Hanging Rock has haunted the Australian psyche for over a century. One summer’s day in 1900, three schoolgirls and a teacher inexplicably vanished, never to be seen again. The trip was supposed to be a Saint Valentine’s Day treat. They were supposed to be home for dinner.
In Tom Wright’s chilling adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s classic novel, five performers will struggle to solve the mystery of the missing girls and their teacher. Euphoria and terror will reverberate throughout Appleyard College, as the potential for history to repeat itself becomes nightmarishly real.
Now showing at Malthouse Theatre, supported by Art Series Hotel Group, director Matthew Lutton discusses how the play resonates with Australian audiences and what to expect from the production.
Picnic at Hanging Rock director Matthew Lutton.
Art Series Hotel Group: This is your first Malthouse Theatre production in your inaugural season as Artistic Director; is there a statement you’re making personally and for the direction of Malthouse Theatre moving forward?
Matthew Lutton: I don’t think it’s a statement, but I am certainly aiming to lay foundations for future seasons. I’m determined for Malthouse Theatre to put Australia on stage, and one way we can do this is by investigating our literary and film cannon. There is a vast array of terrifying, entertaining and piercing novels written over the last 40 years that speak to us loudly about today, and have the potential to be inventive theatrical events.
ASHG: Picnic at Hanging Rock is a story that has haunted the Australian psyche for decades, can you tell us what drew you to this story?
ML: I’m drawn to a lot of stories about our relationship to nature and landscape – the awe, the impossibility, the horror of it. I also love mysteries and myths, and stories that place us in the presence of forces much larger than ourselves. That is probably why I was drawn to Patrick White’s Night on Bald Mountain a few years ago, and is absolutely why I was drawn to Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Photography by Pia Johnson
ASHG: Why do you think the story still resonates so clearly for our Australian audience? And why do you think the themes and characters are relevant today?
ML: Because its characters experience something we can all relate to in Australia – the feeling of being lost in a landscape that is older, wiser, and far more formidable than us. And because the story unpacks our colonial history – a history we have absolutely not come to terms with in Australia.
ASHG: Peter Weir’s 1975 film featuring the famous panpipes comes to mind for a lot of people when they think of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and this production is specifically an adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s original novel. What’s different about the stage adaptation?
ML: The stage adaptation tells the same story, but uses a different form. In the film, Peter Weir reduced language to a minimum and placed the characters in a panoramic landscape. That isn’t a useful form for this story in the theatre, so we use a lot more of the text from Joan Lindsay’s novel. The actors conjure the vast landscape using Lindsay’s words, painting the rock and 1900s Victoria through language. We also don’t use any panpipe music.
Photography by Pia Johnson
ASHG: What are some of the challenges of adapting such a familiar story into a live stage environment?
ML: Audiences will bring a lot of expectations, which is exciting and challenging, as we want to be aware and considerate of these expectations, whilst setting out to surprise. I also think there will be a lot of misrememberings of the story, so this needs to be considered. When you return to Lindsay’s original novel, the questions she is asking of Australia are quite brutal and I think the stage adaptation needs to bring these questions to the foreground.
ASHG: Without giving too much away, what should people expect from the show?
ML: People should expect the story of Hanging Rock, but also a dreamlike (and nightmare-like) experience. They should expect poetry, but also horror. They should expect five extraordinary actors, characters encountering events they struggle to understand, big questions about Australia, a very dark theatre, and an inconclusive myth.
Photography by Pia Johnson
ASHG: Is there anything that’s particularly inspired you and the creative team in developing the show? Is there anything you’d recommend audiences engage with before and after seeing the play? Any books, exhibitions, films, or pieces of music that you think would enhance the Picnic at Hanging Rock at Malthouse Theatre experience?
ML: Lots of works come to mind. The paintings of Francis Bacon have inspired a lot of the physicality in the show, other Australian Gothic works such as Wake in Fright, or The Cars that Ate Paris inform the tone. I’ve thought a lot about the films of Tarkovsky (Stalker in particular) or more recent films like Under the Skin while creating the work, and I think you can look at the paintings of Boyd to see Lindsay’s landscapes articulated visually or Blackman’s paintings to see haunting and haunted school girls in Victoria.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is now showing at Malthouse Theatre until 20 March. Tickets can be purchased here.