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review

Gaslight

Written by Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson

Based on the play by Patrick Hamilton

Directed by Kelli Fox

Starring Julie Lumsden, Kate Hennig, André Morin and Julia Course

Company: The Shaw Festival

Venue: Royal George Theatre

City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

COVID-19 measures: Masks required (except while eating or drinking) until June 10.

Running to October 8, 2022


Is my memory playing tricks on me?

The last time I saw Gaslight, the 1938 stage thriller by English playwright Patrick Hamilton, I’d swear that a detective named Rough showed up partway through the first act to help damsel-in-distress Bella Manningham figure out exactly what was going on in her spooky rented Victorian house in London.

But, in the new Shaw Festival production, no Rough shows up at all. It’s the case of the missing detective!

No, no, I’m well aware of what has happened and that no one is trying to gaslight me about this play. This has a simple explanation: the public domain.

André Morin as Jack and Julie Lumsden as Bella in Gaslight.David Cooper/Shaw Festival

Gaslight exited copyright protection about a decade ago (in Canada) and this Gaslight is, in fact, a new play by Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson based on the old one.

Gaslight, the thriller that spawned the term ‘gaslighting’, gets a new sheen at the Shaw Festival

Wright and Jamieson’s adaptation begins in a similar way to the original with Bella (a luminous Julie Lumsden) seemingly having strange lapses in her memory, in a disorienting dark green drawing room designed by Judith Bowden and lit moodily (at the right moments) by Kimberly Purtell.

Jack (André Morin), Bella’s husband, is concerned that she keeps taking a portrait down from the wall and that Bella’s mother’s pearls, too, seem to be missing once again.

The longtime housekeeper Elizabeth (Kate Hennig) and smirking new maid Nancy (Julia Course) are called in to swear on a Bible that they didn’t nick the necklace, much to the embarrassment of Bella, who knows that more often than not missing items make their return to her workbox.

While it was clear pretty early on that Jack is a bad sort trying to get his wife committed for nefarious reasons in the old Gaslight, in the new Gaslight he seems like a kind and understanding husband – if perhaps just a smidge condescending.

Could Wright and Jamieson be pulling a fast one on audiences here and have changed the play entirely so that Bella really is going mad? Or, perhaps, changed it so that those sounds she’s hearing in the attic at night when the gas lights dim are actually ghosts?

This is the beauty of dramatic works entering the public domain. You can do whatever you want to them, change whodunnit and how, without having to deal with the sometimes controlling estates of long-dead playwrights of mysteries and thrillers.

Unfortunately, if the Budget Implementation Act currently before Parliament passes, copyright would be extended in Canada from life of the author plus 50 years, to life plus 70 years in order to sync up with the United States.

Patrick Hamilton, who died in 1962, currently has his works in the public domain in Canada, but they won’t be south of the border for another 10 years.

The upcoming changes in Canada, which are a result of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement negotiated in the Trump era, won’t be retroactive, so this production of Gaslight isn’t about to become illegal. But this country wouldn’t see another play enter the public domain for about 20 years. That’s sad, in my opinion.

Back to Gaslight, however. It’s already on the record – but I’ll, nevertheless, put in a spoiler alert here – that Wright and Jamieson’s motives in adapting this Hamilton play were not to change the fact that Jack is gaslighting (the form of abuse named after this play) Bella, but to allow Bella more agency in her deprogramming and figuring out what’s going on in a plot that involves murder and lost rubies.

In the process, though, the playwrights seem to have updated the play with ideas beyond their time. Bella has a very modern idea of marriage, which involves partners choosing to stay together (at odds with divorce laws of the early 1900s, which made ending a marriage nearly impossible), while Elizabeth’s advice about trusting one’s own thoughts sounds slightly ahead of the psychoanalytic curve.

Truthfully, the only anachronism I fully balked at in the new script was one of Jack’s comments that he was off to his club again because “one has to build a network.”

There are no flaws apparent in director Kelli Fox’s production, mind you, which features a grounded performance from Hennig, a sneaky one from Morin and a mischievous one from Course.

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