Patrick Hamilton’s thriller has become a theatre staple and a byword for mental manipulation. While many stagings since its 1938 premiere have remained faithful to the concept of Victorian melodrama, Watford Palace’s re-imagined version views the play through the eyes of domestic abuse victims, as Nick Smurthwaite discovers
Gaslight has been a mainstay of repertory and regional theatre programming on both sides of the Atlantic for more than seven decades. Its combination of psychopathic oppression, Victorian propriety and criminal intent has ensured audiences never tire of it. There was also a memorable film version in the 1940s, with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.
Producer Bill Kenwright currently has a revival of the play on the road, starring TV actor Martin Shaw. And in a departure from these more traditional interpretations, Watford Palace Theatre has re-imagined it for a 21st-century audience.
Brigid Larmour, the theatre’s artistic director, who commissioned the new version from director Richard Beecham, says: “It felt like the right time for us to blow the cobwebs off this powerful and well-established thriller. Issues of coercive control have become mainstream and the word ‘gaslighting’ is now commonly used to describe psychological coercion.”
Author Patrick Hamilton, who wrote the play in 1938, would no doubt have been astonished to find that ‘gaslighting’ had become the subject of reams of scholarly discourse 80 years after its premiere, since it goes beyond domestic settings, such as that of the play, and permeates all areas of society.
The framework for Watford’s production, similar to that of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play Our Country’s Good, is a play within a play. A group of abused women in a present-day refuge decide to put on Hamilton’s work, in which a cruel, manipulative husband tries to trick his unsuspecting wife into thinking she is going mad.
Director Richard Beecham says: “The idea is that as the women perform the play they channel their own feelings about their abuse through the text, which gives it an extra emotional charge.
“The play is often dismissed as a load of old tosh, but Hamilton was a highly regarded literary novelist writing a pastiche Victorian melodrama in the 1930s. If you replicate that nowadays, you can easily obscure the painful psychological truth of the play.”
Hamilton would have been astonished to find that ‘gaslighting’ had become the subject of scholarly discourse
In his 2008 biography of Hamilton, Through a Glass Darkly, Nigel Jones draws parallels between the writer’s life and the character of Manningham, the sadistic husband in the play. He writes: “There is the familiar sadism in the refined mental cruelty that Manningham practises on his distraught and helpless wife; the way he plays on her exposed nerves, giving that extra little twist to the rack to prolong and heighten the agony. There is the fear of the dark, which had its roots in Patrick’s own childhood.”
Beecham is fascinated by the idea that Manningham may represent the writer’s alter ego. “Hamilton was a dark and disturbed man, with a taste for prostitutes and sadomasochism. There is probably a lot of Hamilton in Manningham. Psychologists look at this play and find an extraordinary atomisation of a particular form of psychological abuse.”
Gaslight made Patrick Hamilton, at 34, a wealthy man. Nine years earlier, his debut play Rope, later made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, gave him a youthful notoriety, but Gaslight confirmed his promise and assured his place as a leading playwright of the time. Thanks to frequent revivals, it also helped him survive leaner times in his later years. He died from the effects of alcoholism in 1962, aged 58.
The veteran writer and director Peter Gill, who directed a revival at London’s Old Vic in 2007, with Rosamund Pike as Bella Manningham, believed it was far more than a pastiche melodrama. He told Dominic Cavendish of the Daily Telegraph at the time: “In actual Victorian melodrama the situations were much more extreme and bloody than they are here. The tone of it is too well written and in that sense it’s a 1930s play, not a pastiche 1880s play. It is a thriller written by someone who can really write. Gaslight is not a feminist play but it’s a marvellous portrait of a desolate marriage.”
So the Watford production is effectively juggling three time zones – the 1880s, the 1930s and the present day. Is Beecham worried that the contemporary framework will obscure the play’s Victorian roots?
He says: “I did consider that very carefully. Textually, it is a light touch because it is the play as written. I was very clear with the actors when we cast them that this was what we were doing. The original tone of the piece was period RP and I am inviting my cast to use their own voices, so that the audience is in no doubt this is a group of contemporary women. They are stepping into the roles of Hamilton’s characters while never losing sight of themselves in the process. I think it makes the text jump to life in an interesting way.”
Helping the actors to find their present-day identities is domestic abuse careworker Alison Thomas from the Watford Women’s Centre, who led a workshop with the actors in character. Survivors of domestic abuse from the centre have also met the cast to share their experiences.
“I thought it was important that we engage with people in the real world who have dealt with domestic abuse on a daily basis,” says Beecham.
Gaslight runs at Watford Palace Theatre from October 2 to 26
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