Step away from the live stream, cease compulsively refreshing daily COVID updates detailing the Victorian outbreak; Her Majesty’s is open and resplendent, the curtain is lifted, the boards are being treaded by actors, and State Theatre Company of South Australia’s production of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight, a Victorian-era feminist thriller about manipulation, misinformation and gendered abuse, is more timely than ever.
Atop the mantelpiece of the plushy appointed abode of Jack and Bella Manningham is a vase containing not flowers, but rather a trio of peacock feathers. The male peacock attracts the female peahen via subterfuge, by gaudy and hypnotic spreading of its six-foot tail feather train. Once the act of copulation has been completed, the female is discarded immediately.
Jack Manningham, played by Nathan O’Keefe, is a human peacock; a malignant narcissist who love bombs then devalues, who attracts then repels, whose every act serves the furtherance of his own aims, ambivalent to the harm left in his wake. O’Keefe thrives in this role, which is similar to his turn in Moliere’s Tartuffe from a few seasons ago.
Bella Manningham, Jack’s wife, is the peahen. Ksenja Logos delights in her transformation from frazzle-haired abuse victim to empowered and emancipated woman.
Gaslight is a work that illuminates a difficult truth. The greatest horror stories don’t take place in haunted houses; the vilest villains are not supernatural vampires. They occur behind closed doors in suburbia. They are perpetrated by ordinary men in positions of power when nobody else is looking.
Patrick Hamilton, a Marxist, draws an analogy between the servitude of a wife to her husband and the positions of the domestic servants vis-à-vis the master.
Ellen Freeman is formidable as Bella’s stoic ally, the servant Elizabeth, while Katherine Sortini manages to convey much with just a glance in the first act while her character is restrained, then explodes in act two when her character is given a hint of freedom from her chains.
The most notable performance, though, is Eileen Darley’s Inspector Rough, who is introduced to the audience prior to the raising of the curtain, via a version of male-impersonator Vesta Tilley’s ‘Following in Father’s Footsteps’.
Director Catherine Fitzgerald’s casting of Eileen in the traditionally male role of Rough serves multiple purposes: it highlights the theme of impersonation, of false appearances; it transforms the narrative from a male character saving the damsel in distress and, more accurately reflects the reality that it is most often women who save women; and finally, it’s an opportunity for Eileen to revel in her parody of an all-knowing man. Rough spends most of the play mansplaining.
Times have changed since 1938, but narcissists are shapeshifters; they change with the times. The only thing they fear is being unmasked. Gaslight is an unmasking. Although it’s a time where little incentive is needed to step back into the theatre other than that it is open, this is a work that reminds the audience of the vital function that dramatists play, regardless of our politicians’ assertions to the contrary.
Reviewed performance on 8 September 2020