A stormy night, a group of travellers forced to abandon their car and take shelter in a crumbling old mansion…on the face of it, Benighted looks like a classic haunted house thriller.
But scratch beneath the surface, and there are far more familiar – and relevant – questions to be answered by the play’s characters, as the world premiere stage adaptation of JB Priestley’s novel begins to unfold.
Never before adapted for the stage, the early Priestley novel has been turned into a film – James Whale’s The Old Dark House – which was how adaptor Duncan Gates first encountered the strange story.
He admits that he was surprised no one had ever worked to place it onstage – describing the framing of the action in the spooky old house as ‘screaming out’ to have been adapted in a more traditional style in the 1940s or 50s.
The production Gates worked to adapt, which is running at the Red Lion Theatre, takes a more modern, stripped back approach, inspired by The 39 Steps and work by Kneehigh Theatre – which he says suits the elusive nature of the piece.
“It’s a lot more abstract than, for example the obvious piece of Priestley’s work, An Inspector Calls,” he explains.
“It feels like a genre novel, but it’s not – he uses the convention of one genre; people being trapped in a weird old house, and uses that to frame a plot where there’s a lot of uncertainty.”
Written in 1927, the novel was adapted for screen in the early 1930s, and Gates says that the political uncertainty at the time is reflected in much of the reckoning done by characters – questions that ring true in 2016 in eerily familiar ways.
“There’s very much a feeling of things being on the cusp of something,” he explains.
“It’s not that long before fascism in Europe became a really big thing, and also World War I was not so far away in the past so as to have been forgotten about.
“There is a sense that although characters are involved and have an emotional stake in the plot, they’re also saying ‘I could do something about the world, I have that power, but what is it? What do I stand for?”
He adds: “2016 is the kind of year when a lot of people have been asking themselves that same question, in a lot of different ways.
“It’s about saying ‘you are in this place and you go forward from here. You can take as much or as little from the past as you like, but you are the ultimate arbiter of your future.’”
Some of the characters are forced to confront the question as the plot unfolds, while we see others who answered it long ago, and are living with the consequences.
Adapting a writer’s existing work is never without challenges, especially when it’s as towering a figure as Priestley. But Gates says that instead of seeking to represent the author’s every written word onstage, he focused on his intent, and used that as a guide for his own adaptation.
“I’ve had to really ask myself ‘what is the author’s intent here? I’m writing a stage version of it, how do I adapt those bits?’ I think if you can convincingly say ‘yes, I’m doing this because it serves the author’s original intention, which I believe to be this,’ then you’re fine,” he says.
“I think of myself as the playwright/adaptor, which puts some distance between the words in your head and getting it down on paper. It’s almost a conversation where I say ‘I’m going to be as respectful of this person who came up with it, because I didn’t’, but at the same time I’d be doing it a disservice by just lifting it and putting it onstage without adapting it carefully.”
The production is directed by Stephen Whitson, and Gates says that it was exciting to begin to see his adaptation brought to life as Whitson and the actors began working with it.
“It’s exciting, they want to bring their own stuff to this as well, and I have to think ‘how do I best enable that?’” he says.
“You don’t want to be telling people how to do things, you don’t want people to feel they have to ask your permission to do things. That doesn’t really help anyone grow or learn or become excited. It’s like having a child who you raise for many years and then they go to school and have to learn to be social and to use what they have learnt from you. And you have to watch it and go ‘I taught it to do that!”
Image by Chris Gardner