Originally a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsey, the story of Picnic At Hanging Rock took on mythical proportions when a film adaptation first hit cinemas in 1975. Growing up in the 1970s it was almost impossible to not have at least some understanding of Picnic At Hanging Rock. Despite being a work of fiction, based on a series of dreams by author Joan Lindsey, the haunting film does not resolve, leaving viewers wondering if the events were actually based on a true story. With no internet back then to “fact-check”, the film left audiences questioning whether this event really did happen. Indeed, even today, one of the most asked questions about Picnic At Hanging Rock is “what is the true story” and “happened to the girls”.
Decades later, this Australian mystery has finally been adapted for the stage. On the opening night at the 1812 Theatre there were two types of people in the audience – those who had the seen the movie and those who hadn’t. And it was clear who was who. For audiences already familiar with the film, the play was an interesting portrayal of a well known story. The minimalist staging allowed the imagination to flashback to the haunting images from the movie and reminisce. However, those hearing the story for the first time were captivated by the intrigue of this mystery and were hanging on every word.
The plot revolves around the disappearance of several schoolgirls and a teacher during a picnic at Victoria’s Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day in 1900. Spoiler alert – only one of the girls is found alive. The remaining girls and their teacher were never found and no explanation was ever given for their strange disappearance.
The play opens with five school girls narrating the turn of events that took place. It’s dialogue heavy and the five cast members nailed their performances on opening night. Perfectly cast, Claire Duncan, Caitlyn Pasqual, Rhiannon Mitchell, Elisa Kendall and Madeleine Brown all gave extraordinary performances under the expert direction of Dexter Bourke who has a delivered a well-paced production, somewhat grittier than the film version. Bourke has brought out the best in these young performers. The play moves at a steady pace but with enough restraint to allow the story to breathe and the tension to build. The dialogue is crisp and well articulated to ensure nothing is missed.
The five cast members take on various roles through the course of the show, slipping coats and jackets on and off to assist the audience in identifying each new character being portrayed, at times almost disappearing into each new character. Wardrobe by Barb Talbot, Jayne Ruddock, Nicole Comber, Mia Bergles and Nyah Barnes sets the era and defines each character. Lighting design by Liam Mitchinson and Nick Cauchi creates an eerie mood.
The dialogue explains life in 1900 at a girls school in country Victoria, the harshness of the Australian bush, and the imposing presence of Hanging Rock. So descriptive was the dialogue I could see the images of the film flashing through my mind. I could even hear the panpipes, despite the use of quite different music in this production. I may have watched the film way too many times.
In the original novel, Joan Lindsey ends the story with the girls entering a cleft in a rock and disappear into a “hole in space”. There are multiple references to time and place throughout the play, which would set up the story perfectly to end with the girls entering another dimension and travelling in time. However, this ending was removed before the original novel was even published, leaving the mystery unresolved and creating doubts in the minds of the audience as to whether this truly was a work of fiction.The original time-warping hints are already scattered throughout the story, like “easter-eggs” waiting to be found by astute audience members. It is this lack of resolution that created the cultural phenomenon of the mystery of Hanging Rock. What happened to the girls and their teacher? Why was one girl left so traumatised she couldn’t speak about what happened? Why was clothing removed – and yet never found? Like the original book and film, and the play leaves audiences with those lingering unanswered questions. The only difference in 2023 is google can quickly provide some answers – and in some ways that takes away the lingering mystery that haunted us for years in the 70s!
Overall, it’s an interesting presentation of a classic Australian mystery. While it doesn’t have the Peter Weir cinematography of the film version, it does still have all the intrigue and mystery. Watch it, be intrigued, allow your mind to ponder the fate of these girls, and avoid googling the answers for at least a little while.
Picnic At Hanging Rock is now playing at the 1812 Theatre in Upper Ferntree Gully
Photographer – Ash Walker