Director Barry Hooper introduces our next production, Picnic at Hanging Rock, adapted by Tom Wright.
What drew you to directing this play?
As an Australian, it is part of my cultural heritage. Since the Joan Lindsay book was published in 1966 and the film’s release in 1977, the mystery of what may have happened to the schoolgirls at Hanging Rock has seeped deeply into the Australian psyche. So much so that many believe it’s a true story rather than a work of fiction. When the chance came to direct the play based on this great Aussie gothic novel, I grabbed it with both hands. It is an excellent, intriguing, multi-layered adaptation of a dark mystery that is a joy to present.
Picnic at Hanging Rock comes from a book and was also famously made into a film as well as a TV series – what do you think the dramatisation brings to the story?
The difference between Peter Weir’s 1977 film and Tom Wright’s 2016 adaptation couldn’t be more stark. The film placed the mystery of the three girls and their teacher against the Australian landscape. It highlighted the European ambition to change the country from an “anti-eden” to an ordered Englishness. An ambition that goes sorely awry, as order gives way to chaos. A visually stunning film, but not a piece that would work well in the theatre.
In this stage adaptation, the mystery is retold by five modern-day schoolgirls who have urgent information to relate to the audience. They tell the story of the tragedy at Hanging Rock with great purpose, as if slightly possessed by the past. After the disappearance, the grim aftermath is played out in a series of scenes as the ripple effects of the mystery grow wider and wider. Tom Wright has adapted the book by paring down the events, and by his use of rich, evocative, and poetic language.
Tell us about the characters we’ll meet in the play.
The play is written for five women who play all parts. They must be able to adapt very quickly into different characters from scene to scene, even occasionally during scenes. Characters include the indomitable headmistress, Mrs, Appleyard; the fey, young aristocrat, Michael Fitzhubert; Albert Crundall, the no-nonsense Aussie battler, and the grief-stricken orphan Sara, devastated by the tragic events that unfold at Hanging Rock. It is certainly a challenge for the cast! I am delighted to have found a team of five extremely talented actors, who have taken on this work with great enthusiasm and sensitivity.
As an Antipodean, how have you found coaching your cast with their Australian accents?
Well, having lived in London for over 40 years now, I’m no longer an expert! We began by doing them as caricature accents and have toned them down to suit the character. Some, like the five modern schoolgirls, have soft accents, while others, like Albert, Edith and the policeman, speak as working-class Australians. Of course, Mrs. Appleyard and Michael Fitzhubert have English accents. As the production is minimal, it is so important that the accents are correct for the character. Language is a vital part of the play as well as voice and class. Again, another challenge for my brilliant cast!
Picnic at Hanging Rock runs 9 – 13 November.