More Hanging Than Picnic

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” – the Theatrical Adaptation (Directed by Geoff Brittain)

Adelaide University Theatre Guild, 6 October 2018

If you don’t know the story, you’ve been living on Mars.  Young ladies from Appleyard College set off with some of their teachers to picnic at Hanging Rock.  It’s a warm day; the students have been forbidden any ‘tomboy foolishness’ by exploring the Rock; what could go wrong? This saga of Joan Lindsay’s has galvanised generations of readers and film-goers – such has been the hype over the years that people have started to regard the mystery as True Crime.  And there is now a pay-TV series based on the 1967 novel, the 1975 film, and the 1900 scenario.

In this theatrical adaptation by Tom Wright, five performers struggle to solve the Big Mysteries: What Happened? Did it Happen? And if it did, where are the three missing ladies?

It deeply disappoints The Varnished Culture in having to reveal that this adaptation fails on almost every level.  It represents a desecration of the book, and the film. At times, this production annoyed us materially; at times, it amounted to a surprise (and unintended) comedy hit.

Script-wise, its purpose is opaque, indeed impenetrable: though the cast bear names of contemporary characters, these are virtually irrelevant, and certainly not the names of the principals in the story that they are, apparently, re-enacting. The piece dissolves into tableaux that plod along the well-worn plot path and deposit the weary spectator, 90 minutes later, at (hopefully) the nearest bar. It is not so much an adaptation or a ‘re-imagining’ but a plonking Pathé newsreel of an incident – Marat/Sade without the interest. And whilst the juxtaposition of arrivistes in a strange and savage environment poses one of the dramatic flourishes in both book and film, here it is trashed, at times by sheer negligence and at others by the script’s pandering to a kind of hysterical anti-colonialism. It is difficult to see the point in this mangled re-vamping of scenes from the film.

The set is so dreary as to become almost fascinating: some chairs and an over-used period cot, scrub resembling spinifex and some cheap bark chips scattered about, under a framed backboard that served as something to clamber up, and hovering over it, a curtain on which a hokey (when intelligible) bundle of phrases (meant to represent cosmic wisdom but more closely resembling the fumbling and empty effusions written in the programme by the set designer) are sloppily projected, complete with the same font that obtains from Peter Weir’s film.  When Sarah – sorry, “Sara” starts spinning on the floor in a fit of rage, we were reminded of the Director’s earlier offering, The Crucible! (a much better show, by the way).  The lacklustre settings didn’t assist the bewildering and disparate scenes to cohere in any meaningful way.  Occasionally, some simple lighting effects worked well, but on the whole, the sound effects didn’t enhance either the action or the atmosphere (but at least we didn’t have someone capering on stage dressed as a faun, working the pan pipes.  Thank heaven for small mercies).

Direction: The Director’s notes promised “a poetic mystery…a chilling, thrilling, unexplainable horror story, but above all, an entertaining piece of theatre.”  Guess you can’t win them all, but sadly, nothing along these lines was delivered, and even someone who had directed nothing before would have a hard time producing something as poor as this.

As for the acting?  Well, when neither script, nor staging, nor direction are on your side, it is usually time to start chewing the scenery, such as it is.  Usually, but not this night. The 5 actors, who took various roles, tried very hard, were sometimes OK, and often were not, trying far too hard, but not, alas, working very diligently to listen as well as speak. The declamatory style, referred to by Anthony Hopkins as “shouting at night,” recalled panto too often.  For example, the interviewing copper had a most intriguing accent and an interrogation method worthy of Keystone. Michael Fitzhubert kept doing florid double-takes at the mention of Miranda. And Mrs Appleyard, dressed in a villainous cape larger than Rodin’s work-smock, stalked about and screeched, a cackling catastrophe, giving us “The Freak” from Prisoner, Snidely Whiplash and the Wicked Witch of the North in one body.  At one point, we feared it would not be enough for Appleyard to whip “Sara” with her cane – it seemed she would twirl her moustache and tie the wretch to a railway line.

The Varnished Culture loves the Theatre Guild. We have also seen these same cast and crew members turn in exemplary work, more often than not matching and quite often exceeding that of fully professional production companies.  So it pains us to say that this production is an epic fail.

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