Image credit: Pia Johnson
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Until 28th January
Matthew Lutton’s eerie interpretation of the 1967 novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock is both thrilling and engaging, yet leaves the audience with a certain degree of frustration. This is no doubt due to the heavily fragmented account of the narrative which tells the tale of the disappearance of three pupils and a teacher during an excursion to the Hanging Rock formation in southeast Australia. On Valentine’s Day 1900, the group find themselves both enchanted by and inexplicably drawn to the Hanging Rock, disappearing without a trace. The remaining 70 minutes of the play focus the viewer on deciphering what happened to the four women on that fateful day.
The minimal usage of both set design and props lends itself well to the psychological slant, leaving the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps. The conjuring of mental images is deployed through the use of various theatrical techniques, seen clearly in the first act. The cast of five narrate the disappearance of the three girls and teacher, relying purely on verbal description to paint the scene. Leaving the audience in the dark utilises the fear of the unknown. When this building tension is combined with the intermittent periods of intense lighting and sound effects, the play is divided into chapters, each charged with suspense. Thus a coherent narrative is born.
The investigation into the missing person case is mirrored both in the forensic action on stage, as well as the minds of the audience. Not unlike the investigation that is taking place on stage, we too must make sense of the dizzying flashbacks and flash forwards, the changes in location and the blurring of characters. Lutton’s unusual decision to forgo an interval is therefore particularly effective, as the momentum is not dulled but carried throughout.
The merits of the performance, however, are significantly compromised by its succumbing to certain gothic clichés. The demented, possessed child, the tyrannical headmistress and the crazed girl saturated in blood all arguably derail a sense of authenticity that had already been comfortably established at the beginning of the play. Moreover, the abrupt ending to Sutton’s show only further diminishes from its plausibility, its abrupt, relentless ambiguities perplexing viewers in an unsatisfactory manner. Rather than leaving the theatre mentally exercised, Picnic at Hanging Rock runs the risk of overwhelming its viewers to the point of indifference.
Theatrical aspects aside, it must be noted that the modern viewer’s reception of horror stories has significantly changed in response to the evolution of technology. Increasingly, we find special effects are employed in films, engineered to shock and thrill to maximum effect. As an unfortunate by product of this phenomenon, viewers are desensitised to more traditional fear inducing techniques. As such, it is worth considering that anything short of CGI, such as Lutton’s play, may underwhelm younger viewers. Nonetheless, this play is ambitiously realised and, though frustrating at times, offers a new perspective on theatre in Edinburgh.