By Marine Saint, Features Columnist and Subeditor
Adapted from Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel of the same name, Picnic at Hanging Rock is an Australian historical play set at a girl’s boarding school in 1900. This one-hour version of Tom Wright’s script centred on five female narrators who are attempting to uncover the chilling mystery of three students and their teacher who disappeared on a fateful Valentine’s Day picnic.
As a firm admirer of Lindsay’s novel, I was eager to see how this eerie tale translated onto the stage. Graduating director Lowri Mathias’ production of Picnic at Hanging Rock did not disappoint, transporting the audience into the intrigue of hidden scandal, merging past and present with a seamless and haunting poignance. The play had great resonance and a profound emotional impact with its cyclical structure and exploration of hysteria, female agency, and secrecy.
Guided through the events, repercussions, and memories of the disappearances by an incredibly talented five-person ensemble, the stage was creatively transformed from a schoolroom into the unnerving picnic spot dominated by the looming rock. Credit must be given to this production’s Designer Matthew Cassar, who maximised the intimate size of the Wardrobe Theatre’s stage. Cassar created a versatile space where the school desks and blackboards acted as indicators of the plot’s structure and signified shifts in time and location.
I was especially drawn to the artistry of the piece, as all five actors not only told the story from the perspectives of multiple characters and across a variety of timeframes, but also created physical art on stage by drawing the intoxicating wilderness of the picnic’s surroundings and key lines from the text. Mathias’ appreciation of the original material was apparent through the lyrical quality of her production which beautifully combined visual and spoken storytelling.
With atmospheric music, sublime costuming, and brilliantly effective lighting carefully matching each mood of the scenes, this production presented the audience with an aesthetic delight. The sometimes overly-abrupt jumps from past and present in lighting and sound was to be expected with the nature of a one-hour cut of the production, but nonetheless showed me the great capabilities of the cast and creatives.
There was a definite sense of unity amongst the talented graduating cast, Bristol Old Vic Theatre students Eve Periera, Tanvi Virmani, Carlie Diamond, Rebecca Hyde, and Louise O’Dowd. All five engaged the audience’s attention with their confident, funny, and immersive performances. As well as reflectingly and emotively narrating the mystery and questioning the audience, the cast took on the impressive task of switching between a myriad of characters. They did so effortlessly and with incredible wit. Eve Periera’s portrayal of one of the lost schoolgirls, Miranda, was particularly moving. Periera mastered the space with a gripping and thoughtful delivery of Miranda’s monologue when trapped in the ominous caves and perfectly relayed her character’s mounting anxiety and solitude.
There was a tangible sense of the audience’s involvement within the piece, with the humour amongst the dark psychological thriller mood reaching those watching. This was exemplified by the transitions from playful narration, especially created by Tanvi Virmani’s charismatic presence, to moments of explosive anger and the ominous and tense interrogations.
This production of Picnic at Hanging Rock was part of the ongoing BOVTS Director’s Festival, which has been running for the past 16 years. The festival has an established reputation for showcasing emerging talent in directing, performing, and design as well as contemporary theatre adaptations. Mathias’ play, brought to life by her highly talented cast and accomplished team of creatives, demonstrated the extremely high calibre of the BOVTS students and indicates the unquestionable potential for those involved in their professional careers.
Picnic at Hanging Rock was a delightful fusion of tension and wit which broached pertinent questions of a woman’s role in society and the psychology of silenced voices in a unique, immersive, and imaginative way.
Featured Image: Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
Have you seen the other performances in the Director’s Festival?