The theatre falls into complete darkness as industrial white noise blasts through the speakers before being abruptly killed seconds later. The screen hanging above the stage now projects the name of a new chapter as a re-lit theatre reveals four more girls standing alongside the solitary original actress; each casting a shadow which lines up perfectly with the others on the backdrop.
Which shadow matches up to which girl? It’s hard to tell. Just exactly whose story is this? It’s not immediately clear. An unnerving aura is set from the offset of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and it’s the beginning of a masterclass in gothic tropes which runs throughout.
Tom Wright’s adaptation of the Joan Lindsay novel (directed by Matthew Lutton) has just begun its run at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. The acclaimed Australian production tells the tale of a small group of schoolgirls who disappear in mysterious circumstances while on a day trip to the eponymous Hanging Rock; an enormous if foreshadowing natural wonder.
What really makes the play so spectacularly ominous however is the inventive lighting, menacing mise-en-scène and aforementioned gothic motifs; delivered with perfect ambiguity by the strong cast of five. Amber McMahon and Arielle Gray particularly stand out for their stage presence.
The aforementioned motif of mistaken identity dominates the production; with actresses rarely name-badged or reprising a singular role for more than a few minutes. The cast swap voices convincingly with no change in costume and take over from one another like they’re speaking from one mind when they enter the narrative voice.
From this multiplied doppelgänger oozes an overwhelming sense of otherness. Throughout the production the audience is confronted with the uncomfortable familiar; uniforms, settings and roles which shiver with the feel of the ordinary disturbed by something strange.
A popular kid spawns jealousy from another, a handsome traveller is lost, a schoolteacher worries about her pupil’s manners, a struggling child misbehaves. There are many sub-plots in Picnic at Hanging Rock that are not unique, and yet they are presented through placement, darkness and positioning in such a way that sends shivers down the spine.
The end-of-chapter blackouts are used to outstanding effect to allow this otherness to constantly increase the levels of tension, the cast flicking through roles and scenes with almost sinister callousness and leaving the audience on the edge of their seats.
One particularly memorable scene sees McMahon’s actions mirrored by a seemingly unseen other while a further member of the cast stands silently facing the wall in the corner, projecting horror through the fantastic and the sense of isolation effortlessly echoed despite the collection of actresses on stage.
It’s an incredibly strong production that uses inventive, innovative staging to radiate terror from the everyday norm.