‘This is not the comeback we were looking for’: Ben Brooker on STCSA’s Gaslight
In an ordinary year, the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s revival of Patrick Hamilton’s fusty old warhorse Gaslight probably wouldn’t have attracted much attention. In a time of plague, however, when theatres have been closed for months, the weight of expectation on this production has been steadily increasing. It’s apparently the first mainstage show to open in Australia since the start of the pandemic as well as the first at the impressively redeveloped Her Majesty’s (albeit at half capacity with “Covid-safe” chequerboard seating).
Heading into opening night – as eager as everybody else to get a first look at the new theatre’s sweeping staircases and reinstated Edwardian features – I couldn’t help but think that, in a season originally to have included such appetising fare as Ella Hickson’s The Writer and Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female, this isn’t the show with which anyone would have chosen to herald the return of live theatre. It was a feeling, sadly, that would be confirmed over the course of the rest of the evening as I sank ever deeper into my seat in the newly rebuilt grand circle, desperately trying to claw back my excitement at once again being a part of a living, breathing audience.
For one tantalising moment I thought we were in for an interesting night – something, perhaps, along the lines of the recent Watford Palace Theatre revival, in which an all-female cast enacted the original play about a psychologically abusive husband as an exercise in drama therapy. After a burst of scene-setting music hall, performed in front of the curtain as a kind of Victorian male impersonator routine, a narrator (Eileen Darley) literally blows the dust off a playscript. She reads out Hamilton’s dramatis personae and opening stage directions. So far, so post modern.
But any promise of a playful or re-contextualising reading is scotched almost immediately as the curtain raises on Ailsa Paterson’s fog-enshrouded set, a detailed upper middle class Victorian parlour crowded with heavy drapes and furniture, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in any conventional staging of the play since its 1938 premiere. From there, Catherine Fitzgerald’s direction more or less continues to fails to convince us that, despite its zeitgeisty title and resonant themes of gendered manipulation, Hamilton’s play is worthy of such a traditionalist revival in 2020.
The two acts – between which we can’t even get a compensatory drink as the foyer bars are closed – grind on for more than two hours with all the dramatic potency of a midday movie. I was reminded less of what I’d missed about live performance than of Peter Brook’s definition of “the Deadly Theatre” – one that fails to instruct or elevate, and barely even entertains. This is not the comeback we were looking for.
Despite two popular film adaptations in the 1940s – one British and one American – it occurs to me that Gaslight can’t have been much regarded as a good play even in its day. It’s a remarkably ham-fisted piece of playwriting, from the fact that almost the entirety of the plot is spelled out in the second (overlong) scene, to that what little drama there is is driven by neither character development nor the progression of events but by the virtual omniscience of a single character, a police inspector.
If the films stand up, and I think they do, I suspect it’s largely owing to the synthesis of a certain mood – claustrophobic, bleak, alienated (in a word, noirish) – that was approaching its peak in popular culture when the Ingrid Bergman-starring remake was released in 1944. STCSA’s Gaslight, in contrast, nods towards rather than generates atmosphere, leaving Hamilton’s verbose script – indicative of a writer more likely born a literary novelist than a playwright – to do most of the work.
That, and the actors of course. None are completely successful in the unenviable task of reconciling the demands of melodrama with those of the contemporary stage, but neither are any of them bad. (Certainly, wearing body mics, nobody has to declaim too much.) Most canny is Fitzgerald’s decision to gender-swap the role of Inspector Rough (not an original idea admittedly), played fruitily and with a faint Scottish lilt by Eileen Darley.
In doing so, Fitzgerald intriguingly creates a sense of female solidarity between the inspector and Ksenja Logos’ Bella Manningham, gaslit wife of the villainous Jack (Nathan O’Keefe). It’s also a neat solution to one of the more glaring problems of producing Hamilton’s play today, namely that to modern audiences Rough’s pompous railroading of Bella is almost as objectionable as Jack’s bullying. But none of this, in Fitzgerald’s reading, tells us very much about gaslighting, a once-useful concept now applied so liberally as to have virtually lost all meaning.
In my boredom, I more than once found my mind wandering to Stephen Daldry’s An Inspector Calls – still, for me, the gold standard of theatrical revivals. It was written around the same time as Gaslight, and, like Hamilton, its author J.B. Priestly was a leftist deeply concerned with class and issues of what we would today call social justice. Daldry’s 1990s revival, acknowledging both the play’s setting of 1912 and the 1945 post-war era in which it was written, succeeded in blowing the cobwebs off a play – and, indeed, a playwright – long considered irredeemably old-fashioned.
Suddenly, Priestly’s essentially socialist play about the selfishness and moral hypocrisy of bourgeois capitalism seemed not merely relevant, but vital. What a shame that – just when we could have done with a reminder of live theatre’s power to transform past and present – so much has been squandered on such a poorly thought-through revival that is neither of these things.
Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton, directed by Catherine Fitzgerald. Set and costume design by Ailsa Paterson, lighting design by Nic Mollison, sound design by Andrew Howard. Performed by Eileen Darley, Ellen Freeman, KsenBookingsja Logos, Nathan O’Keefe, Katherine Sortini and Martha Lott. State Theatre Company of South Australia until September 19. Bookings