Empty seats aren’t typically a welcome sight at the opening of a new play. But during a pandemic, it’s business as usual. And for the audiences soon to watch the State Theatre Company’s latest production – an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 domestic-peril thriller Gaslight – it’s probably for the best.
“It’s going to be a very creepy, dark, misty world. So I think having a little bit of space is good,” says the company’s artistic director, Mitchell Butel. “If you jump in your seat, you won’t knock someone’s drink next to you.”
With opening night just over a week away, Gaslight will be the first major show to take place in the newly redeveloped Her Majesty’s Theatre, and the first physical production in almost six months for the State Theatre Company (digital theatre project Decameron 2.0 employed 88 artists in the meantime).
When Covid-19 restrictions hit back in March, the company had to cancel the majority of its 2020 program: The Gospel According to Paul, Single Asian Female, Euphoria, The 7 Stages of Grieving and The Writer were all nixed. “We did Dance Nation in the [Adelaide] Festival, then did two previews of that at Belvoir in Sydney and had to cancel [the remaining five shows],” says Butel.
Originally slated for the Dunstan Playhouse, support from the Adelaide Festival Centre meant Gaslight could be moved to the larger Her Majesty’s Theatre. Crucially, this allows the company to host an audience closer to the size of the Dunstan Playhouse’s pre-pandemic capacity: as per government restrictions, ticket holders currently need to be seated in a checkerboard layout (one empty seat between each audience member, including those in the same party).
“It’s actually – touch wood – turned out to be quite a good thing,” Butel says of the venue switch. “I think there’s a real hunger for audiences to return to the theatre to see this kind of reimagination of a classic play, but also to have a little stickybeak at Her Majesty’s. So we’re very lucky at the way things have coalesced.”
Set in the Victorian era, Gaslight tells the story of Bella Manningham, a wife questioning her grip on reality. Her husband tells her she’s going mad – but she’s convinced she hears footsteps in the night and sees pictures moving by themselves and gaslights in her house dimming without a touch. The term “gaslighting” – manipulating someone into doubting their sanity – derives from the play.
“It’s essentially a classic melodrama, a thriller. I thought it was really interesting, because it’s also such a huge term in popular culture when we talk about gender politics, domestic violence and politics,” says Butel. “When I spoke to [director] Catherine Fitzgerald, who I really wanted to work for the company again, she had some really interesting ideas about cracking it open – to twist it in a few modern ways so it could resonate more immediately with audiences today.”
Despite being a 1930s play, Butel hopes this update of Hamilton’s work will provoke conversation about how domestic violence – and gaslighting – presents itself today. Gaslighting has inspired countless think-pieces in recent years, the word is often used to describe the behaviour of the President of the United States – from The Washington Post to Teen Vogue – and in 2015 it even became a criminal offence in the UK. Designer Ailsa Paterson’s set is a commentary in itself: she’s created a space that looks as if it’s floating in a black void, serving as a statement about the “shadow pandemic” – the global increase in domestic violence cases during lockdown.
While rehearsals and performances will feel different this year, everyone involved with the production is raring to go. “It’s such a thrill for all of the performers to be returning to the theatre. And I think audiences will get a thrill, too,” says Butel. “Whatever we can do to ensure everybody’s safety – while also making good art – is a good thing.”
Gaslight runs from September 4 to 19 at Her Majesty’s Theatre.