Picnic at Hanging Rock is a tale that still raises goose bumps on the flesh. Beneath the unbridled innocence and beauty beats the heart of pure, unadulterated horror. It is a mystery in the best sense of the word – one that unsettles and chews at nerve endings.

Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel about three schoolgirls and a teacher inexplicably vanishing one summers day, was adapted into a screenplay in 1975. It was a huge Australian film and captured the imagination of anyone who had ever visited the Rock in question located in central Victoria close to Mount Macedon.

Popular and busy actor Nikki Shiels is part of this ensemble piece adapted by talented playwright and actor, Tom Wright. Wright’s adaptation promises a style and form both interesting and mesmerizing.

“There is a sharing of characters amongst the ensemble that refines itself as the form of the work shifts and changes, ” explains Shiels. “We each begin to carry the journey of individual characters as the story progresses. I arrive at inhabiting Irma Leopold. Irma is one of the girls who goes missing on the rock and the only one who is discovered ten days later. She furthers the mystery of the piece recollecting nothing of her experiences at Hanging Rock, but carrying a world of terror and perplexity in her interior.”

Lindsay did an extraordinary job to capture the eerie quality within the tale that resonated long after the final page was turned. Weir did the same thing with his film. Wright’s adaptation remains faithful to the poetic nature of Lindsay’s novel but the story has been reimagined for five women on stage. “It is theatrically inventive and there is a contemporary voice that permeates the production,” Shiels explains. Themes, however, are still easily recognized and include: tension of time and space, nature and civilisation, the feminine and masculine, day dreams and nightmares, facts and imaginings, the ephemeral and reality. And of course mystery.

Shiels acknowledges that marrying the language and the physical life of the work has proved challenging throughout rehearsals. “It’s epic and we have had to deconstruct each element in order to begin to fuse them,” she says.

“The language of Tom’s adaptation is densely layered, rich and robust. We have worked with great attention to detail in the rehearsal process and had to get very specific with language as individual performers and as an ensemble. In some of the more heightened text, Tom leaves out punctuation, allowing room for us to play with different choices in how to best convey meaning and clarity for our audience. These choices are often arrived at collaboratively through a process of trial and error and layering under Matt’s (Matthew Lutton) detailed direction.”

“As for the physical life, it’s been a similar process. We have moved from wild gesticulating to make sense of the characters and story in our bodies, specificity and refinement to find a physical language as individuals and an ensemble that best serves the telling of our story in space.”

For many, Picnic at Hanging Rock is an iconic Australian story telling a tale of the Australian psyche across time, post colonisation. Shiels agrees stating: “Joan Lindsay’s novel was inspired by William Ford’s 1875 painting of the same name – among other things. The story itself is set in 1900, was written in 1967 and published in 1970. In 1975 Peter Weir’s famous film adaptation was released and the tale is now being told on stage in 2016. There’s a lot different times going on there. In a way, the iconic nature of the story is still evolving as myths do and I expect Tom Wrights adaptation of Lindsay’s novel will continue to be interpreted in years to come.”

Shiels describes the play as a story that is relevant, complex and good. The initial attraction to this work was the opportunity offered to her to collaborate on a new adaptation of an Australian classic with a brilliant creative team. For nearly 50 years, Picnic at Hanging Rock has been many things for many people. For Shiels it is: ” An Australian myth. A mystery. A work that weaves the imagination through beauty and horror in the Australian landscape.”

Picnic at Hanging Rock
February 26 – march 20
http://malthousetheatre.com.au/whats-on/picnic-at-hanging-rock