But if you’re looking for a heroine with backbone, skip Gaslight and go straight to Elle.
Warning: If you haven’t seen the fifth season of Game of Thrones, avert your eyes from the following paragraph.
At the end of Game of Thrones’ fifth season, Owen Teale was arguably the show’s most-hated actor. As Alliser Thorne, the master-at-arms at Castle Black, Teale led the stabbing party that brought down Kit Harington’s broody, hunky Jon Snow. Boooo!
So who better than Teale to play a Victorian villain cruelly plotting to drive his sweet, fragile wife insane?
Teale is currently in Toronto, starring in a new Mirvish production of that cobwebby thriller, Gaslight. And he’s just one of two Game of Thrones alumni in the cast. Ian McElhinney, far more admirable as the upstanding veteran knight Barristan “The Bold” Selmy, is also here, suitably enough in the role of the avuncular detective-hero. Clearly, producers David Mirvish and Paul Elliott are banking on the huge popularity of the HBO series to draw young audiences to this dated melodrama.
But if you go in expecting to find one of GoT ‘s resourceful heroines, you’re out of luck. Gaslight not only gives us a classic villain, but also a classic damsel in distress. She’s played by Irish actress Flora Montgomery as a prize specimen of helpless Victorian womanhood, pale and frail and always on the verge of hysterics. When the going gets tough, McElhinney’s kindly detective instructs her to go to bed and stay there, which she does obediently, like a timid child.
Gaslight, by Patrick Hamilton, was written in 1938 but is set in 1880, so it was already a period piece when it was first produced. How do you stage it in the 21st century? Ironically? Director David Gilmore opts to play it straight, as full-on museum theatre, with a splendidly detailed drawing-room set and costumes by David Woodhead, gloomy lighting by Howard Hudson (you can almost see the yellow London fog seeping into the room), and ominous chords at suitably ominous moments from sound designer Gareth Owen. The actors likewise play their parts with total conviction.
Teale’s big, bullish Jack Manningham looks like a threatening figure even in repose. He already has the air of an erstwhile school bully well before he reveals that, as a lad, he learned how to get his way by physical means if the “intellectual” approach didn’t work. His solicitous attitude towards his troubled young wife Bella doesn’t fool us for a second. Montgomery’s Bella, meanwhile, has the nervous edge of someone who is not even comfortable in her own home. (And she has every reason not to be.)
McElhinney’s cheerful Inspector Rough is a reassuring contrast to Teale’s mysterious Manningham. He’s the sort of chap who can be trusted even when he’s being deliberately oblique. We know he’ll be good to our weak and guileless heroine, who really believes the drink he offers her from a hip flask is medicine. Such a sheltered creature! There is excellent support from Emily Head as a saucy young maid and Victoria Lennox as a trusty older one.
How the actors keep straight faces speaking some of the lines is a marvel. When Manningham declares that he’s going to go out for an evening of debauchery and “be gay,” it gets an expected cheap laugh. But surely the best bit of unintended humour is Rough’s revelation to Bella that her husband consorts with “unemployed actresses.” (Perhaps he takes yoga classes with them.)
Gaslight was a big hit when it was first produced in London and New York, and inspired both British and Hollywood film versions in the 1940s. More recently it has come back into vogue (along with the term “gaslighting” as a euphemism for psychological torture) and had a notable revival in the U.K. this past fall.
The Mirvish-Elliott production was also put together in the U.K., but is making its debut here. The play was originally to have been ensconced in that little Victorian jewel box, the Royal Alexandra Theatre, where it would have fit perfectly. But with Kinky Boots still strutting the Royal Alex stage on an extended run (see our Torontoist Top 10 Plays of 2015), it had to be relocated to the bigger Ed Mirvish Theatre. The Mirvish (formerly the Canon) has been truncated for the occasion, with false walls and painted backdrops hiding some of the seating and reducing the size of the auditorium. It’s a cleverly theatrical solution that brings the space down from 2,200 seats to 1,380. And the sense of artifice that it gives certainly complements the creaky artifice up on the stage.
If you’re up for some old-school melodrama and don’t mind giggling behind your hand half the time, Gaslight can be fun. But let’s be thankful that the feeble child-wife character was gassed long ago.
For a full-blooded heroine with courage, resourcefulness, and a healthy libido to match any debauched Victorian gentleman, look no further than Elle at Theatre Passe Muraille. Actress-playwright Severn Thompson’s rousing adaptation of Douglas Glover’s 2003 novel finds her embodying the legendary Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, the young French aristocrat who was marooned on the fabled Isle of Demons off the coast of Newfoundland in 1542 and lived to tell the tale.
Glover’s conception of Marguerite is of a “headstrong girl”—and a bawdy one, too. When we first meet her, she’s aboard her uncle’s ship, having vigorous sex with her seasick tennis-player boyfriend as a means of distracting herself from a horrendous toothache. It’s one helluva’ opening scene—hilarious, erotic, and disgusting all at the same time. As a consequence of her indiscretion, a pregnant Marguerite, along with her lover and her old nurse, are kicked off the ship by the nasty “uncle” (actually a cousin, who also stands to gain land with Marguerite’s death).
The lover and the nurse soon perish, and Marguerite is left to fend for herself on the deserted island. There follows a gripping survivor’s yarn involving near-starvation, near-death in a freezing river, and encounters with a bear and some friendly First Nations people.
The fact that Thompson’s Elle comes on the heels of the Oscar-nominated The Revenant has led to inevitable comparisons, and it would be nice if that brought additional interest in the play. But the resemblance with the film is superficial; although it also employs a revenge theme, Elle is ultimately about adaptation and transformation. Notably, Marguerite isn’t mauled by a bear, but saved by one—a dying female whose carcass she guts and uses as a shelter. Later, as the story grows more surreal, she herself takes on ursine qualities, becoming part of this mysterious New World as opposed to struggling against it. As conceived by Glover and presented by Thompson, her narrative is a heartening contrast to those of colonizing European explorers like Jacques Cartier (the ship from which Marguerite was expelled was part of Cartier’s third expedition to Canada).
Thompson—an actress we don’t see enough of—is bold, witty, and compelling as Marguerite, holding us in her spell for 90 minutes. This is not, however, entirely a solo act: Jonathan Fisher serves as the show’s onstage musician (the score and sound design are by Lyon Smith) and also plays Itslk, an Inuk hunter whose meeting with Marguerite comes off as an amusing inversion of the Man Friday episode from Robinson Crusoe. The production is fluidly directed by Christine Brubaker and intriguingly designed by Jennifer Goodman, with a strange, skeletal structure upstage that suggests, at least to these eyes, the ribs of that eviscerated bear.
Elle only runs until this Sunday, so catch her before she departs.