Picnic at Hanging Rock
Written by: Tom Wright
Directed by: Tanya Piejus
Running at Gryphon Theatre until 11th Nov 2023
Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson
Four teenage girls from the private boarding school Appleyard College set off on a picnic to Hanging Rock, a geographical marvel and former volcano in central Victoria, Australia. On Valentine’s Day 1900, Edith, Irma, Marion, and Miranda ascend the monolith. Only Edith comes back. Later, Irma is found bruised, bloody, but alive.
Back at the college, headmistress Mrs Appleyard has turned to the bottle to cope with the growing unrest as more perturbed parents withdraw their daughters from the school. Much to her annoyance, she’s left with orphaned student Sara, a close friend of Miranda’s. Meanwhile, Englishman Mike Fitzherbert nurtures a growing obsession with the mystery.
Tom Wright’s stage adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s acclaimed 1967 historical fiction (or is it?) novel of the same name sees five actors play multiple characters. Between Emily Bell, Lydia Verschaffelt, Gracie Voice, Ava Wiszniewska, and French-accent icon Anna Curzon-Hobson, there’s a handful of distinct roles. For instance, Bell plays Sara beautifully, Voice is the dangerously infatuated Mike, and Wiszniewska tweaks the heartstrings as a traumatised Irma. But they take turns to embody the missing girls, and not in the way you might think. In the opening picnic scenes, the cast speaks in third person, narrating the girls’ actions even when carrying them out. This striking playwrighting choice depersonalises the characters for me, but equally and aptly, intensifies the disorientating sense of unease that builds throughout the play.
The superb cast accentuates the impending sense of doom with performances perfectly sculpted (director Tanya Piejus) to climax at just the right moments. Verschaffelt in particular is a knockout in the final scene (and a wickedly funny drunk as Mrs Appleyard), but the entire cast works as one cohesive, committed unit to hit the horror home. This coupled with Hanging Rock looming large above the action (AV design by Tanisha Wardle), a sparse and haunting sound design by Brian Byas, and well-timed, moody lighting changes (Jamie Byas), and Picnic at Hanging Rock is a thrilling watch.
Bravo to Wellington Repertory Theatre for this stellar production of a story I’m still thinking about. Will somebody please tell me what happened to the missing girls!