When Patrick Hamilton’s play, Gaslight, first appeared on the London stage at Richmond Theatre in 1938, the novelist and playwright had no idea that the title of his psychological thriller would slip into more common parlance as a description for a form of manipulation. This has been the case since the 1960s, but over the last few years has come to the fore once more. While this is something Kai Fischer couldn’t ignore when he began work on his new production, which opens at Perth Theatre this weekend, he wanted to focus on the play’s noirish essence as much as its wider social significance. With this in mind, Fischer is keen not to let loose any spoilers to audiences who might not be aware of the play.
“I’d known the play for a while,” he says, “and there was an idea of doing it a few years ago, so when Lu (Kemp, Perth Theatre’s artistic director) approached me to do it, I already had a connection with it. When I first looked at it, to be honest, I never thought I’d push for it, and I’m not sure it would have been the first piece of work on my mind, but then the play started to feel more relevant, and that changed things.”
Gaslight was originally set in late nineteenth century London in the well-to-do home of Jack and Bella Manningham, whose uneasy relationship leads to the appearance of a police inspector, whose focus is on exposing the rotten heart of the couple’s marriage. While the original London production transferred to the West End before opening on Broadway with a cast that included Vincent Price, Fischer is attempting to tweak the play gently into a more modern world.
“For me, Gaslight is a play of great contradictions,” he says. “On one hand, it takes you into the territory of a thriller, with mystery and secrecy and excitement. Then it goes into a different world, and it becomes about threat and trust. Patrick Hamilton wrote it to be enjoyed for the atmosphere it created, and for its theatricality, but the more you read it, the more you get under the skin of the characters.
“I don’t want to stop it from being a thriller, but we’ve brought things forward slightly to the early 1900s, so it is set in a time still just about within living memory in the way that the original was. We’ve also cast a woman to play the Inspector, which subtly brings things a little bit closer to us. When it was first written, that part was for a male performer, but there’s absolutely no reason why you have to do that, so why not open things out and give things a different chemistry?”
As a designer, German-born Fischer has worked extensively with Vanishing Point, with whom he is a creative associate. He created and directed Entartet, a dramatic installation that looked at Nazi Germany’s 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition, and directed Last Dream (On Earth), a theatre production experienced on headphones. Both of those featured sound design by Matt Padden, who also provides noises on and off for Gaslight.
“The sound design is really important,” says Fischer. “It’s a crucial part of the atmosphere for the show.”
Gaslight, sometimes spelled as Gas Light, and known in America at various points as both Five Chelsea Lane and Angel Street, has been filmed twice. The first version, made in 1940, was a British production directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynard. The second big screen take on the play came four years later in a higher profile remake that featured Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten in the lead roles.
This was directed by George Cukor, who took several liberties with Hamilton’s original in a film that was nominated for seven Oscars, with Ingrid Bergman winning the Best Actress award. Cukor’s version came after MGM bought the rights, inserting a clause that all existing versions of Dickinson’s film be destroyed so it couldn’t compete with their own effort. This failed, and the first film has now been restored by the British Film Institute.
“We’re not basing things on the films,” says Fischer. “Just the play. A few slight tweaks had to go through Patrick Hamilton’s estate, who were very understanding. But we still try to accommodate the spirit of the time in the play, whereas I think the American film tried to make it more palatable.”
Hamilton was by all accounts a complex figure, whose output was prolific. His first play, Rope, first presented in London in 1929, was also filmed, this time by Alfred Hitchcock in 1948, four years after Cukor’s version of Gaslight. Hamilton wrote ten stage plays in all, as well as numerous radio pieces and thirteen novels. His final work, an adaptation of his highly regarded 1941 novel, Hangover Square, was produced posthumously in 1965, three years after his death.
Since then, Hamilton’s work has ducked in and out of view, with several TV adaptations of his work and a documentary profile appearing in the early noughties. - A one-man stage show – The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton – was seen on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014 and 2015.
It is Gaslight, however, that seems to have left its mark on a wider public consciousness and made it a favourite of the commercial touring circuit which thrives on such a close-up sense of mystery. This is something Fischer’s production aims to do in its own way, retaining the play’s claustrophobic essence while acknowledging its wider contemporaneous reach.
“I think there’s this thing going on about what we can trust,” says Fischer, “and the things in the play about what we believe in and what we imagine have become much more timely for today. With most characters, we’re not really sure who they really are or what they want, and that makes a mystery out of it that works on a lot of different levels.”
Gaslight, Perth Theatre, tonight-April 6.
The Herald, March 21st 2019