You think you know a place. After all, you’ve been there so many times before. You know its ins and outs, every inch of its physical dimensions. But more than that, you feel you know its essence, its nature. If a building can have personality, you believe you’re familiar with every one of its facets. You’ve seen it masked and unmasked, hidden and revealed. You love it, but you think it can never truly surprise you again.
But one night, you discover that you are wrong. This is not the place you believed it to be. You feel like a prisoner who has been pacing the same cell for a decade, then awoken to find that every brick has been moved. Suddenly you see that place as if for the first time. Because this building, whose physical limits you thought you knew, has deformed, expanded. Its walls appear to have melted away.
That was me, last night, in the Liverpool Playhouse. I’ve seen its stage built up, stripped back, opened wide. I’ve seen complex sets crammed into its modest dimensions and I’ve seen it bare – nothing more than a box. I know where it begins and where it ends. But The Haunting of Hill House did something remarkable. It made me doubt my own knowledge of a theatre I’ve been visiting for two decades. And it did so without using physical structures to build the space anew (like the time the circle became the stalls for Our Country’s Good in 2007), but by dressing a near-empty stage in a darkness that was enveloping, almost liquid.
Actually, there is very much more to this strong adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s influential 1959 haunted house story than the darkness, but one of its many benefits is to conceal quite how much else is going on. Surrounding the proscenium is an array of piercing white bulbs, like those around a dressing room mirror. When they flash and blaze for just a moment, your eye feels flooded by the inkiest of blacks. And in that second of blindness, who knows what’s happening up there on the stage?
This is theatre, not literature or film. So if Jackson’s original novel is regarded as one of the creepiest books of the 20th century, and the 1963 movie adaptation The Haunting is hailed as one of the most terrifying features of all time, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this Anthony Neilson stage version, directed by Melly Still, must be equally unsettling. Here, the concealment and suggestion must happen in plain sight and involve actors who are just yards from your face. The pretence must be total; no one can be allowed to break the spell. And so the fact that I continually found myself gripping the seat arm or sitting with muscles inexplicably tensed would indicate that this mission was accomplished. It wasn’t fear as such, but more a sense of disorientation and being thrillingly on edge.
Produced by the Playhouse in partnership with Sonia Friedman Productions and the famous Hammer organisation, this is a Liverpool world premiere with heavyweight commercial backing. As one of the most technically demanding shows I’ve ever seen, it’s clear that it couldn’t have happened without this support, and though (to my knowledge) it hasn’t been officially announced, I imagine a London run will follow. What’s interesting is that for all the costly complexity of the staging – and I’m afraid it would spoil things if I elaborated – there really is very little in the way of a physical set. A sofa, a bed, some doors – rather less than in the average junk shop. But as always, it’s what you do with them that counts.
If the pools of viscous darkness come to dominate this production, there is light too to provide a little balance – both metaphorically as comedy, and literally as electromagnetic radiation. Except that this latter element isn’t delivered as shafts of brilliant illumination. Rather, there are shallow ponds of murk and gloom into which the four key characters step and dawdle before a flash of movement or a sonic rumble drags the attention back to the shadows. And there is projected light too, with the skewed angles and alcoves of Hill House – perhaps the most haunted of all fictional residences – appearing and vanishing in the blink of an eye.
It is these exceptionally good projected effects that give The Haunting of Hill House its signature look. They dress the set, they dance through gauze, they engender a shifting, woozy sensation that adds to the tension. With a show as complex as this, it is hard to tell from the credits list precisely who did what, but in this case we should probably applaud set designer Miriam Buether, lighting designer Jack Knowles, and video specialists 59 Productions.
These considerable bells and whistles would be as nothing, however, if the show didn’t have some terrific performances at its heart. Fortunately it does. Emily Bevan’s Eleanor is all hunched shoulders and wringing hands, a masterclass in self-loathing, repression and resentment. She is paired beautifully with Chipo Chung’s graceful and self-confident Theodora, the ‘bohemian’ who might just succeed in opening Eleanor up to the world. Between them, and in tandem with Joseph May as the sceptical Luke and Martin Turner as the frankly rather perverse Dr Montague – the man who brings them all to Hill House in order to put reports of paranormal activity to the test – they rise to the challenge of being spooked without looking ridiculous. Had they failed, the audience’s laughter would have skewered everything. As it is, those gasps and chuckles are expressions of relief.
At this point, I feel we should close the creaky door on this review, as the play’s pleasures lie in peering into the darkness for yourself. If you’re hoping for a few sudden shocks then I dare say you’ll get them; it’s a Christmas jumper all right, although not the kind that keeps you warm down the pub. But prompting an occasional leap from your seat isn’t the chief triumph of this wonderfully atmospheric production. Far more interesting is the creeping sense that the most familiar of surroundings might suddenly shift and disintegrate, and what you thought was the way to the ice-cream kiosk has become a path to a different kind of chill.
Photos by Gary Calton
What: The Haunting of Hill House
Where: Liverpool Playhouse
When: until January 16, 2015