Q&A with Matthew Lutton on Picnic at Hanging Rock

1 March 2016

Photo / Pia Johnson

Q&A with Matthew Lutton on Picnic at Hanging Rock

This is your first Malthouse Theatre production in your inaugural season as Artistic Director; is there a statement you’re making personally and for the direction of Malthouse Theatre moving forward?

Matthew / I hope Picnic at Hanging Rock is laying foundations for future seasons, as I want to make sure we are putting Australia on our stages more regularly. We can do this through new writing of course, but also through retelling stories from our novels and film repertoire. There are so many beautiful and terrifying stories we can retell, and by retelling we can hopefully start to build an Australian cannon.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a story that has haunted the Australian psyche for decades, can you tell us what drew you to this story in particular?

M / For me it is the awe-inspiring presence of nature – the ‘palpable otherness’ that seeps through Picnic at Hanging Rock, infiltrating and penetrating all. It scares me, and I’m always drawn to stories that make me feel small; that pit us all against forces much larger and grander than ourselves.

Why do you think the story still resonates so clearly for our Australian audience? Why do you think the themes and characters are relevant today?

M / Firstly because of it’s gothic qualities; I think Lindsay managed to capture the experience many of us have felt, of feeling overwhelmed in a land that is older, wiser, and far more formidable than us. And secondly because she does this while unpacking our colonial history; how we arrived completely unaware of this country and how to this day have still not reconciled this history.

Peter Weir’s 1975 film featuring the famous panpipes comes to mind for a lot of people when they think of Picnic at Hanging Rock, but this production is specifically an adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s original novel. What’s different about the stage adaptation?

M / The film takes quite a romantic approach and applies a visual cinematic language to its storytelling – it positions characters in a panoramic landscape with minimal dialogue. I don’t believe this approach would be satisfying in the theatre. Representing the rock and nature onstage in any literal way (think styrofoam rocks and painted backdrops!) for the three journeys to the rock wouldn’t capture the complexity of Lindsay’s ideas or the visceral impact it has on the characters. We therefore decided to avoid any literal representation of nature on stage, and to use instead Lindsay’s language and words to conjure Victoria.

What are some of the challenges of adapting such a familiar story into a live stage environment?

M / Audiences will bring a lot of expectations, which is both exciting and challenging. We want to be aware and considerate of these expectations, whilst setting out to surprise. I think there may be a lot of misremembering’s of the story, particularly if the film is very present in your memory. Therefore returning to Lindsay’s novel was essential, and digging into the post-colonial ideas she writes about was our guide.

A lot of people have been asking about the gym scene in the production, can you tell us about its significance?

M / Good question - it’s a major scene in the novel, and in this production.

So much of the story is about repression and this scene is where the tensions within the schoolgirls break out. They are all grieving the loss of their friends, their bodies and sexuality are corseted by Appleyard’s teachings, and the school continues to instruct through ridiculous repetition. When Irma returns, firstly she can’t answer the question about what happened on the rock, secondly she is escaping the school and country, and thirdly she has transformed sexually. All of this is unbearable for the young girls, and they direct their outpouring of emotion onto the body of Irma, attempting to tear her apart.

In the production, the scene only has a few lines of dialogue and is almost entirely physical. This was very important to those making the show. We started the production with a scene that is very still and entirely about words (it is very classical in form), and by this point in the production we wanted to have evolved to a theatricality that was all about the body—a scene with almost no language.

For people that haven't yet seen the production—and without giving too much away—what should we expect from the show?

M / People should expect the story of Hanging Rock, but also a dreamlike (and nightmare-like) experience. They should expect poetry, but also horror. They should expect five extraordinary actors, characters encountering events they struggle to understand, big questions about Australia, a very dark theatre, and an inconclusive myth.

Is there anything that’s especially inspired you and the creative team in developing the show? Is there anything you’d recommend audiences engage with before and after seeing the play? Any books, exhibitions, films, or pieces of music that you think would enhance the Picnic at Hanging Rock at Malthouse Theatre experience?

M / Lots of works come to mind! The paintings of Francis Bacon have inspired a lot of the physicality in the show, other Australian Gothic works such as Wake in Fright inform the tone. I thought a lot about the films of Tarkovsky (Stalker in particular) or more recent films like Under the skin while creating the work, and I think you can look at the paintings of Boyd to see Lindsay’s landscapes articulated visually or Blackman’s paintings to see school girls haunting Victoria.