Picnic at Hanging Rock, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry, to Saturday, Oct 21. Australia gleams out of the globe by the side of the piano. And it’s red. Deep red. That was the colour of much of the world map in 1900. Queen Victoria was coming to the end of her reign, but the British Empire ruled on.
There’s something unsettling about that redness, however. It is the colour of what Shakespeare called “a bloody, discontented sun”. Or as Elizabeth Appleyard puts it early on in this latest adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, “we sleep on a sea of flame”.
Elizabeth – “Mrs Appleyard” to you – is the imperious headmistress of a school struggling to impose imperial values on some godforsaken part of the Outback. And failing. So much so, that by the second half of this imaginative and thought-provoking production, she is sampling a “medicinal” tipple or two while reminiscing about a long- ago dalliance in Bournemouth.
You can see why Bournemouth might seem attractive in this context. Hanging Rock looks striking from a distance, but close up it seethes with snakes and spiders. Ants crunch underfoot. The heat is unbearable.
Cracks and crags spell more danger and, sure enough, three teenagers and a teacher go missing on a school trip. Passions are aroused in that unforgiving heat. Tempers too. Fired by those medicinal tipples, perhaps, Mrs Appleyard threatens and bullies a girl she dismisses as an “albino native”. A white Aborigine, in other words, whose subsequent breakdown is convincingly portrayed by Tina Shinkwin.
She’s one of a five-strong female cast who give their all to this complex exploration of imperial pretensions in a hostile landscape.
Georgia Kelly switches character, as well as clothing, with bewildering speed yet remains convincing in very different roles. Nicol Cortese has the presence as well as the voice to convey Mrs Appleyard with aplomb.
A cleverly thought-out set and some evocative background music add much to a production that emphasises once again the complexities of an Australian novel that is still raising profound questions 50 years after it was written.