Picnic at Hanging Rock (4 stars)

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Metaphysical horror from down under that aims high

With a sparse set that suggests a claustrophobic school room, and the cast dressed in contemporary school uniforms, Matthew Lutton (director) and Tom Wright (writer) conspire to retell a story familiar from both the novel and film that captures the uncanny horror and becomes a metaphor for the conflict between civilisation and the savagery of nature. While the conceit of the school girls performing a story from 1900 is not always coherent, it allows Lutton to approach the horror at the heart of the mystery through a variety of highly theatrical techniques, with moments of shock balanced by careful explorations of the battle between humans and the landscape.

The first scene – almost a tragic chorus that introduces the disappearance of a school party at the titular Hanging Rock – dispenses quickly with the moment of tragedy. Wright's script then follows the aftermath in detail, contrasting the prim, optimistic and regulated world of the girls' school against the majestic, yet devouring outback that surrounds it. By the finale, the schoolmistress is confronted by a tragedy that echoes the downfall of a classical Greek hero, and the triumph of nature – cast as a sublime, unknowable and vicious power – shatters the thin veneer of civilisation that the school hoped to bring to Australia.

The cast switch between roles, suggesting a ritualistic role-play that evokes the source novel rather than re-imagines it as a traditional play. Interludes of darkness – and melodramatic soundscapes – interrupt the scenes, and the ensemble's bodies are contorted and restrained by costumes as they play out the gothic episodes. At times, it threatens to collapse into hysteria, but the pursed lip exchanges between the students, as well as the understated threat of violence within the school, make this adaptation suggestive than explicit. Relying on words to express both the repressed sexuality of the pupils and the malignant – yet unnamed – forces of destruction, Picnic at Hanging Rock is taut, allusive and uses a curdled romanticism to expose the desperate mismatch between colonial aspirations to tame and the unforgiving powers that lurk in the wilderness.

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh until Sat 28 Jan.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Australian production based on the haunting bush tale about a group of schoolgirls who disappear.

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