Valentine’s Day, 1900. A group of schoolgirls go for a picnic with their teacher. All but one of them never return. No one knows what happened to them or where they went.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock, it’s probably safe to assume you feel intrigued. Joan Lindsay’s canonical 1967 novel continues to captivate readers worldwide, and it’s become firmly embedded as a national myth in her native Australia. Some still aren’t sure whether it actually happened and happily spend years musing over its mysteries.
The tale has travelled the world - even to a small corner of South East England, where I distinctly remember my mum telling me as an over-curious child about these girls who never came back. And now there's a major new TV adaptation on the way, which is shaping up to be 2018’s answer to The Handmaid’s Tale.
Matthew Lutton chose to open his inaugural season as artistic director at Australia’s Malthouse Theatre with a new production of Lindsay’s novel, bringing new life to one of the country’s greatest myths. The production, adapted by Tom Wright from the original novel, was celebrated when it opened there in 2015, and again when it was subsequently performed in Edinburgh; next week, the production comes to the Barbican.
So why take on this tale - captivating, but burdened with the cultural obsession that surrounds it? Lutton told me on a call from Australia that he wanted to apply rigour to the country’s biggest myths. “I think the classics often get trapped in a state of nostalgia, or they don’t get scrutinised enough,” he said.
His first encounter with the story came from the now classic 1975 film, but on reading the book five years ago he found himself “in awe of the way that Joan Lindsay wrote this book that was written like it was fact.”
“She wrote it as if this absolutely happened and that she was telling a mystery,” he says. Lindsay was infamously guarded about the book, never revealing whether it was true or not, and opening the novel with the command that readers decide for themselves: “As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important,” she wrote.
It has all the ingredients of an engrossing mystery, but why does the story continue to have so much power in Australia? Lutton thinks there are two reasons - one being that the novel gives no solution to its mysteries, “and that makes the imagination work harder.” (There was a chapter published posthumously that provided an answer. “I recommend everyone not to read it,” Lutton says.)
And then there’s something that’s more unique to Australia. “It taps into a very bodily experience of feeling terror in your home country - a terror of landscape. I think that’s something that a lot of people around the world have experienced, but also is very particular in Australia,” he says. “Once you leave the cities, you realise you’re venturing into a country that is very sacred and very old.”
But it seems our feelings about national myths are complicated. When the Brexit result emerged, National Theatre boss Rufus Norris made a concerted effort to engage with the country’s most formative stories with two pieces of new writing, Saint George and the Dragon and Common. They both flopped. Myths, Lutton suggests, read us - we don’t read them.
“There’s a sense that we keep going back to these myths because they reveal more of the psyche, or more of the subtext of the culture,” Lutton suggests. “There’s something about this story that’s very much about ignorance and denial.”
Part of this ignorance comes from the “foreign intrusion” of England into Australia: the girls attend an English-style school and wear Edwardian outfits, with one character wondering aloud why she’s having to wear such an absurdly impractical outfit to climb a rock.
“One of the things that Tom Wright does throughout the adaptation is play with this idea of a culture - an English culture - that comes to Australia and tries to name everything. Without knowing that the country already has names,” he says. The story is partly about the failures of colonisers; it’s intriguing to consider how forthcoming English audiences will respond to this. In Edinburgh audiences were rapt, and offered a number of responses about their own sense of guilt.
Matthew Lutton's guide to Australian literature
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. “Obviously.”
Bliss by Peter Carey. “We’re currently doing this at Malthouse. This is actually the Australian play about the #MeToo campaign.”
Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook. “It’s a nightmare that descends into alcoholism and toxic masculinity in Australia. It’s brilliant.”
The Watchtower by Elizabeth Howard. “It’s probably one of our great feminist early 20th century works.”
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. “A lot of these early 20th century writers created work that captured the turn of the mid-century post-World War Two changes in Australia. We’re all rereading them at the moment because they’re prophetic.”
“I’ll be very interested in whether there’s a sense of carrying colonial guilt in the English audience,” Lutton says. “That sense of, should they have been in this country? It will feel very different I think. The play is really about Englishness versus Australia.”
Even when the girls themselves begin to climb the rock, they have little awareness of where they are or the indigenous history that surrounds it. It’s an issue that has recently manifested itself in a campaign against Picnic at Hanging Rock’s grip on local tourism. Visitors fascinated by the eerie story continue to go to the rock to walk in the footsteps of the girls, and it’s not uncommon to find tourists standing at the top and calling out “Miranda!” to reenact the most famous scene in the film version. Entitled Miranda Must Go, it argues that a fictional tale of white vanishing has been promoted at the expense of the area’s indigenous history.
“I certainly understand that the position of Joan Lindsay’s story is not the only story of that landscape,” Lutton says. “The rock’s indigenous name is Ngannelong, and it’s important that we know that history. I think the Miranda Must Go campaign is a brilliant way to make sure we remember and understand the rock, and that the landscape has a multitude of histories running simultaneously. And you can’t let Lindsay’s story deny the longer and older history.”
But the rock, arguably the novel’s main character, makes no appearance in the Lutton’s version - and audiences have been fine with that, reportedly coming out of shows screaming and feeling totally terrified. It was deliberate - Lutton knew that a literal representation of the rock could never match the aura of the real thing.
“We decided to conjure it in the audience’s imagination using poetry,” he says. “We use a lot of the novel in an act of resuscitation. Almost like an act of possession.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock is at the Barbican from February 21-24; barbican.org.uk