Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Rehearsing Gaslight
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Director Peter Gill and company talk to Jonathan Croall about rehearsing Gaslight

It's the beginning of the second week of rehearsals. In the high-ceilinged room at the top of The Old Vic, the Victorian period is already much in evidence. A pile of 19th-century novels is stacked up on a table. On a wall are pictures from the time — Sickert, Atkinson Grimshaw — showing shadowy or rain-washed London streets. In the middle of the room the set is gradually evolving, the focus a table, covered in a rich coloured cloth, on which is laid a delicate china tea set.

Director Peter Gill, having set the production in 1880, has spent much of the first week easing the actors into the period. He's encouraged them to examine and speak some of the poetry of Tennyson, Kipling and Matthew Arnold, to consider the sexual politics of the era, and to look at attitudes to notions such as deference which characterised the time. Now, at the end of a hard day's work, he and the three principals in his production -Kenneth Cranham, Rosamund Pike and Andrew Woodall - talk enthusiastically about Patrick Hamilton's thriller, and the demands of their roles in it.

'I saw it years ago at Windsor Rep, and was riveted by it,' Peter Gill recalls. 'It's a good story and very well-written. I don't want to make more claims for it than the writer would, but I do think that there is hidden inside it a play about the middle-class male fantasy of the working-class girl and the middle-class wife, which Hamilton might have developed had there not been a Lord Chamberlain.'

The actors are clearly fascinated by the play. 'I find it very intriguing, because it has a great oddness to it, but also some poetic beauty,' Kenneth Cranham says. 'There are passages where what you know about Hamilton and his life seeps through.' Andrew Woodall is similarly impressed. 'I find it sinister for lots of different reasons, and the more we work on it, the more un-nerving it is. It has a reputation of being a spooky play, but it's a lot more shocking than that: it's a psychologically interesting play about wife abuse.'

Rosamund Pike, a great fan of Hamilton's novels, thinks Gaslight plays much better than it reads. 'On the page it can look hideously old-fashioned, full of hokum and creaking plot mechanics,' she suggests. 'But when you start working on it and playing with the writing, you realise there is a lot of insidious stuff going on, and that it's a wonderfully witty and structured play.'

Peter Gill is famous as a director for his encyclopaedic knowledge, which he invariably uses to drop in information that can stimulate a new thought, a different angle on a character. All three actors find this invaluable: 'He's got a library in his head, and he likes to share it,' Andrew Woodall observes, while Kenneth Cranham adds, 'I've never asked him a question that he's been unable to answer.' They also welcome his insistence on precision, on keeping them punctiliously to the surprisingly complex text, and ensuring the meaning is made absolutely clear.

Each of the main roles presents a different challenge for the actor. Andrew Woodall, playing Jack Manningham, has given his share of villains over the years, among them a pederast, a wife-beater, and the bastard Edmund in King Lear. For him, the main question so far is whether the satanic husband is an unmitigated villain. 'It's a knock-out part, but he doesn't really have any redeeming features. On the other hand I think when he says he might have been an actor, that's genuine. There's a kind of horrible innocence about him, and he's also slightly pathetic. But I think at the moment that you just have to play him as a complete sadist.'

Rosamund Pike, who gave such a memorable performance last year as Miss Alma in Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke, clearly relishes taking on another character of an extreme nervous sensibility. 'Bella Manningham is a very complex woman living in a very narrow world. It's a real nightmare for her, imagining that she's going mad, but having no outward reality to judge whether she is or not. She's imprisoned in her own head, without having anyone to confide in or to reassure her, so when Detective Rough comes in he's like her guardian angel. She's a very intense character, who has the potential to give love and affection. Her spirit isn't crushed, which I think is really important. Otherwise the audience would give up on her, instead of rooting for her.'

Kenneth Cranham has played a succession of policeman in his career, most notably 796 performances as Inspector Goole in Stephen Daldry's celebrated revival of JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls. As ex-detective Rough he calls again, but as a very different character in very different circumstances. 'It's a challenging role, because you don't get parts of this substance any more,' he says. 'He's a complicated character: you don't quite know who he is, or quite what he's up to. I imagine him as a dedicated policeman who was made to retire, and it's something he can't stop doing. I think he's got a housekeeper, but not a wife: he's one of those career men. But even though he's just a policeman, he's fantastically articulate.'

Many people will know Gaslight only through the two screen versions, the 1944 American one directed by George Cukor, with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, being better known than the 1940 British film, starring Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook. Peter Gill observes that neither is faithful to the play. 'It's very odd, they're so frightened it won't be a film, so they give it a back story, which means it's an age before they get to the story proper. In both cases they felt the husband had to be foreign — and yet this is a Patrick Hamilton story, it's about a typically English deviant. And they set the film in houses in squares, which was much too grand: they should have been in a place such as Waterloo or Islington or Kensington.'

Both Kenneth Cranham and Andrew Woodall have seen the American film, but Rosamund Pike has so far refrained from doing so. She has though, for research purposes, found it useful to watch other films: The Elephant Man, for an insight into Victorian attitudes, and Hitchcock's Rebecca, where she sees parallels with Gaslight. 'There's the same feeling about a house that's terrifying, and the young wife's desperate need to please.'

It's time to clock off for the day. Ahead lie three weeks of intense rehearsal, under the stimulating direction of Peter Gill. No doubt the company will be delving deeper into Patrick Hamilton's absorbing piece of theatre, which has continued to intrigue audiences for nearly 70 years.

Jonathan Croall is a theatre historian and biographer

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