Gaslight: A Classic Psychological Thriller
Here’s the recipe for a study in suspense guaranteed to give you even more shivers than the winter that’s finally arrived in Toronto.
Take one leading lady and stack the cards so you can’t tell whether she’s a damsel in distress or a woman rapidly losing her mind.
Add a husband who is either a knight in shining armour or a veritable prince of darkness and complete the list of ingredients with a detective who finds himself growing very fond of the woman in trouble. Perhaps too fond.
Mix it all together in an atmospheric setting, sprinkle with some colourful supporting characters and then wait until somebody’s goose is cooked.
Sound like a lot of fun? It is. It’s also the template for three of the most popular stage thrillers ever mounted in the 20th century, all of which later enjoyed highly successful film versions: Gaslight, Dial ‘M’ For Murder and Wait Until Dark.
Gaslight, of course, takes pride of place in this list. It was the first one created (in 1938), the most durable (numerous stage versions and two film incarnations) and the one which Toronto theatregoers will have a chance to see at the Ed Mirvish Theatre from January 17 through February 28 with an all-star cast from London, including Owen Teale, Ian McElhinney and Flora Montgomery.
Speaking from London, where the show is rehearsing prior to Toronto, all three of the leading cast members expressed their enthusiasm about the show – with each one having a totally different reason.
“I just see it as a classic thriller,” declares McElhinney, who plays the well-meaning Inspector Rough. “There’s such a tremendous psychological pressure on poor Bella, the wife in the situation, that you’re completely drawn into her world and come to share her uncertainty. Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? Are we right to share her fears?
“Something terrible might happen. Someone is in a very vulnerable position. That’s much more powerful than seeing any amount of blood and guts. That’s why this story has endured for nearly 80 years.”
But to Northern Irish actress Montgomery, the power of Gaslight isn’t in its archetypal structure, but in its almost frightening relevance today.
“It’s very spooky,” admits Montgomery, “but almost every time I tell someone that I’m rehearsing Gaslight, they say to me, ‘I know someone who’s going through that in their life right now.’”
Rest assured, Montgomery isn’t referring to the world of creaking stairs, flickering gas lamps and melodramatic violence that seems to be waiting just around the corner at every turn. No, her concerns are much deeper.
“It’s shocking how many people – men and women both – are living in relationships right now where they don’t feel completely at ease, where they feel they’re being lied to. Lately, as a society, we’ve all become increasingly aware of bullying as a damaging emotional issue, but it’s been there all the time. Yes, perhaps there used to be more physical abuse than mental, but there’s too much of both kinds of abuse still taking place.
“Our job is that we must be true to the period (Victorian England) and the text (by Patrick Hamilton), but we’ve also got to make it accessible and honest to every member of the audience today. When a work is as good as this is, you can do both. And I’ve seen it all around us. Go to parties and you can see a husband or a wife controlling their partner, belittling them and undermining them at every turn. It’s a timeless story which should still be told.”
One more side to the story appears to Tony Award-winning actor Owen Teale, who plays Jack Manningham, the husband. He sees it as a universal study of human nature that deals with some of our profoundest fears and emotions.
“When I just sit quietly and read the script on my own,” confesses Teale, “it’s amazing how frightening I find it. It’s about the razor’s edge that separates sanity from madness, about the very essence of human frailty and how one person can use another person’s frailties as a tool against them.
“What makes someone succumb to practicing mental abuse on his partner? I think it’s because of deficiencies in their own lives, because of things that haven’t worked out the way they wanted them to and this person finally wants to take revenge on the world that’s destroyed them.”
But what makes us drawn to a play with such a bleak view of human nature? Teale thinks he has the answer.
“If someone tells you something is very dangerous, you want to peer over the edge to see it. It’s what makes you stop to stare at a traffic accident. Why do we need to be scared? Because we need to be reminded of our fear of death.”
But whether you choose to see Gaslight as insight into our mortality, a parable of contemporary abuse, or just a ripping good story, there’s something rewarding waiting for you at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.
As leading lady Montgomery puts it, “It’s thrilling and terrifying and fascinating. If you want to see all those things, then go to the theatre.”