Picnic at Hanging Rock Resources


Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre has just begun a season of the first stage adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock. Some may remember Peter Weir’s 1975 film of the same name.

The setting for this work is Hanging Rock, a formation consisting of a series of column-like magma structures in Central Victoria. The fictional story of a group of private schoolgirls and their teacher on a trip to the rock on Valentine’s Day 1900 where several of the girls mysteriously disappear, has become so much a part of the Australian psyche, that many believe it to be fact.

… I saw her (Joan Lindsay) after the film had come out and she was besieged by the press, and she said to me, ‘Oh, the press keep asking me about the truth of the matter and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know whether I should tell them or not.’ And I said, keep your secret. It was never of interest to me whether it had happened literally or not. Peter Weir, 1994.

Adapted for the stage by Tom Wright and directed by Matthew Lutton, Picnic at Hanging Rock fuses multiple time frames, a minimalistic set, a thoroughly chilling sound scape, frightening use of stage blackouts, calculated stage movement and dialogue delivered with precision by a strong all-female cast. Though a little text-heavy for my liking and lacking some direction in parts, Picnic at Hanging Rock will nevertheless thoroughly entertain and engage high school drama students who are seeing the show as part of their studies.

What I attempted, somewhere towards the middle of the film, was gently to shift emphasis off the mystery element which had been building in the first half and to develop the oppressive atmosphere of something which has no solution: to bring out a tension and claustrophobia in the locations and the relationships. We worked very hard at creating an hallucinatory mesmeric rhythm, so that you lost awareness of facts, you stopped adding things up, and got into this enclosed atmosphere. I did everything in my power to hypnotise the audience away from the possibility of solutions… There are, after all, things within our own minds about which we know far less than about disappearances at Hanging Rock. And it’s within a lot of those silences that I tell my side of the story. – Peter Weir, 1976.

Below is a collection of web resources for teachers and students analysing the show (updated 8 March 2016):

Pre-Show Background Articles
The Guardian
The Sydney Morning Herald
The Australian
The Weekly Review

Post-Show Reviews
The Guardian
The Age

We realised really early that we can’t put this landscape on stage … that if we tried to illustrate it in a very representational, literal way, it would shut down. They (the audience) would see it and then in two minutes they would have got it and moved on. So, having a mystery … actually denying the audience, whether its something aural or something visual, I think makes them engage.  – Matthew Lutton.

Online Bookstores (1967 Novel)
Angus and Robertson Bookworld
The Book Depository

Education and Study Guides
Malthouse Theatre Education Pack 2016 Stage Production

Peter Weir Interview 1976
Peter Weir Interview 1994
ABC Radio Interview with Matthew Lutton (forward to 25:00 mins)
ABC Radio Interview with Matthew Lutton and Tom Wright March 2016

Video Interviews with Creatives

1975 film directed by Peter Weir


7 Responses

  1. Sam says:

    I’m performing this play for school, adn i was wondering 1) what you think the theatre styles that are used in the performance and 2) What you think the chorus should wear. For us, the chorus is the rest of the school girls.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Hi Justin,
    Did they use an already adapted script or do you know if Tom’s is available for purchase?
    Rebecca Dorge

  3. Caitey says:

    Thanks Justin. It always helpful to hear from another Drama teacher, expecially one with so much experience and expertise. It’s been six years since I last taught year 12, and even then that was my graduate year, so I’m still finding my feet. With the year 12s we have focused on the links to Brecht and Artaud.

  4. Caitey says:

    Hi Justin. Thanks for posting your comments. My Year 11s and 12s went to see it last week and loved it. They’re doing their SAC on it in class tomorrow and the conversations that we’ve already had are fantastic. My concern is how I keep them remembering the play right up until the exams, and also what resources might be available for teaching Australian Gothic Theatre as a performance style. All I could find was shake and Stir’s teacher pack for Dracula and a few student attempts at explaining it through prezi. I am wondering if you know of any good resources on this topic?
    I also found the music for the trampoline scene a little superfluous. What was your take on the opening of the play with the ten minutes of direct address explanation of the story? My students struggled to see the 2016 connection in this other than their school uniforms and I didn’t have much reply for them because nothing of the stage and set design or the blocking even, indicated 2016 to me either.

    • Caitey, sorry for my late reply. Australian gothic theatre I feel is going to be too obscure, as you have found with your search for resources. I’m just sticking with the number of broad non-naturalistic techniques, any evidence of the four VCAA conventions defining non-naturalism (transformation of character, time, place and object), and with Yr 12 students the links to Artaud and Theatre of Cruelty. There were of course other conventions one could link to a practitioner such as the digital screen being a contemporary example of placards and signs common in Epic Theatre (actually it is probably closer to the early projection Brecht used in Epic Theatre), the use of direct address as another Epic Theatre technique etc. Remembering the play six months later is always a challenge. Thankfully the Malthouse have a “Revisit the Play” session in the first week of the September school holidays, where among other things, on their own premises they can show footage of the show they have filmed themselves without breaching copyright. Click the link above to book spaces for your students.

  5. Ashleigh says:

    What did you make of the “trampoline” scene with the modern music by Benny Bennassi? It confused me and my students and we found it too jarring to have any actual meaning. Am seeking any insight into its importance to the performance. My kids thought someone had played the wrong audio cue.

    • Hi Ashleigh. The trampoline scene in the stage production was a reference to the gymnasium scene in both the novel and film, when Irma returned from the rock with some form of retrograde amnesia, only to be attacked by the other girls for not revealing exactly what happened up there (just prior to departing for Europe). Like fish at feeding time, it was a frenzied scene. As for the music in the stage production of the scene, this is where contemporary theatre sometimes gets it all wrong. Having electronic music in the gymnasium scene simply didn’t work. I’m all for contemporary productions that are eclectic in style. The risk, however, is that if you don’t pull it off it can look (and sound) like a dog’s breakfast on stage. I believe this scene is important because it reinforces that extra layer of mystery in the plot, implying Irma knew very well what happened to the other girls, but refused to tell. Director Matthew Lutton said in an article in The Australian (in the post, above) “I’m surprised that people never remember the scene in the gymnasium, and that’s one of the most important scenes in the story”.

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