Reigniting Gaslight for National Tour

Reigniting Gaslight for National Tour

A new adaptation of the classic psychological drama Gaslight is making its Australian premiere in Brisbane in February 2024 ahead of a national tour. Beth Keehn caught up with Lee Lewis, the play’s director, and Patty Jamieson, one of the playwrights, to find out more.


Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight has resonated strongly with audiences since its first production in 1938. Its dark Victorian setting and disturbing themes have intrigued us so much that it has been produced for the stage several times, under different titles, for London’s West End, for Broadway, and beyond. It was even televised live from the stage in a 1958 production for our own ABC TV. And of course, it has given us a new way to describe psychological coercion in modern relationships. Thanks to a timely reinterpretation by two Canadian playwrights, Australian audiences will soon be able to revisit this classic tale of madness and manipulation. 


Beth Keehn (BK): Lee, why did you choose Gaslight as your first play for 2024? 


Lee Lewis (LL): QT’s 2024 season has an underlying theme: “Every play is all about the conversation after the play.” And one story that is incredibly topical is Patrick Hamilton’s 1938, Gaslight, a gothic thriller set in the Victorian era. This is the play that changed how we speak about toxic relationships. It has added ‘gaslighting’ to our modern lexicon to describe coercive behaviour and psychological manipulation.


Gaslight is a classic play that has been adapted several times for the stage. I love the original play, and I love the two 1940s films – but then I read this new version by a couple of great Canadian theatre-makers – Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson. Their version first appeared in 2022, so it is very fresh. Their adaptation changes the play in a way that makes it a much better thriller. It’s scary and claustrophobic. And, of course, the themes of coercion and control are only too familiar to us today. Sometimes plays set in the past can help us realise how things have changed for the better. And the Victorian setting is another good reason to do this play. I (also) love a good frock and an old-fashioned melodrama!


BK: There’s nothing old-fashioned about your lead actors!


LL: Certainly not! The writers have distilled the story to just four characters, who each have a much bigger part in the story – so the nuances and psychology are really important. Every part needs a strong actor, and we have a wonderful cast: Geraldine Hakewill as Bella and Toby Schmitz as Jack – with Kate Fitzpatrick as the housekeeper, Elizabeth, and Courtney Cavallaro as Nancy the maid. These are all fabulous contemporary actors.


Gerry and I have been looking at situations that have always been frightening for women. Looking at coercive control, as a woman, you have to admit to all those times you’ve been subjected to it, and use that insight to understand how this can happen to Bella – to acknowledge that some of the decisions that she makes are not crazy, and to have compassion for her. It’s exciting working with Gerry, who’s interested in that level of psychology.  


It’s also great to have Toby back on the stage because he’s been doing so much TV. And he really wants to sink his teeth into his role as Jack and understand what drives his behaviour – is it a society that puts pressure on men to always succeed? We have to try and understand the violence – where does that impulse come from? What we see at the beginning is a man who is deeply in love with his wife, but seeing him change is the magic trick of a great actor. 


BK: Will you be importing any designs from the original production?


No, we are making everything here in Queensland. I really believe that the State theatre companies, as well as introducing new voices, have a responsibility to preserve the old theatre traditions as well – in making, in costumes, and sets. Paul Jackson is our Lighting Designer. And, because a good thriller needs a good score, we have Paul Charlier as our Composer and Sound Designer. For our costumes, we have Renee Mulder, who has just returned from working on The Importance of Being Ernest for the Sydney Theatre Company, so this will be a wonderful addition to her period-piece portfolio.


BK: Tell me about working with Newtheatricals, your touring producer for this play.


LL: We are partnering with Rodney Rigby at Newtheatricals as producers for Gaslight. We’ve been looking at different models for our work, and this will enable Gaslight to tour the country after our premiere in Brisbane. The whole team is looking forward to creating the atmosphere and tension of Gaslight, and making audiences jump! And of course, continuing their conversations after the show!


Patty Jamieson is a playwright and performer. She adapted Gaslight with fellow Canadian, Johnna Wright (who is also a theatre director). Their new version was first performed for the Shaw Festival in Ontario in 2022.


BK: What drew you and Johnna to Gaslight?


Patty Jamieson (PJ): Johnna and I felt that the central story of Gaslight was compelling. Bella’s struggle resonated for us in so many ways. We thought it could have meaning for others as well. We’ve kept all the delicious mystery elements from the original play: a gloomy Victorian house with a tragic history; a fragile woman who may be losing her mind; an attentive and caring husband; mysterious sounds in the attic; and ominous changes to the gaslight at night. Our version starts off much the same as the original but, part way through, something changes, something that puts Bella at the centre of a story that many of us are living right now. No one is coming to save Bella. Can she save herself?


BK: Patty, you’ve performed in Patrick Hamilton’s Rope – did that give you an insight into the playwright’s method and themes?


PJ: Both Rope and Gaslight dive into some of the darker recesses of human thought and behaviour. Both pieces are about worlds that mostly men inhabit – women are peripheral. It’s hard to know Hamilton’s motives, but he was a product of his time. We are writers shaped by the circumstances we live in. We wanted our version to reflect that. 


BK: How long did you work on the play?


PJ: We started the work in 2014. We live in different parts of Canada, so we actually wrote together over Skype and we had a first draft by 2017. We did get together for several workshops before the premiere at the Shaw Festival.



BK: How did you research female experience in Victorian times?


PJ: I’ve absorbed a great deal about the female experience in Victorian times from the plays I’ve worked on at the Shaw Festival over 26 seasons! The Victorian period represents a huge span of social, political and economic change for women in society, in England and elsewhere. Some of the stakes for Bella come from the Victorian marriage laws and property laws. We also have the house staff, Elizabeth and Nancy, who are navigating different societal expectations. We didn’t want to change the rules of Victorian society. Our question was: Is there a way for Bella to play by those rules and win?


BK: Do you have a message for Australian audiences?


PJ: The Australian team, led by director Lee Lewis, is very experienced and talented and we can’t wait to see what they come up with. We hope Australian audiences will enjoy this classic thriller filled with mystery and suspense – and its wonderful cast!


Production images - Photographer: Brett Boardman




Gaslight premieresd in Brisbane on 20 February 2024, before touring to Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, Newcastle, Parramatta and Sydney. 

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