Journalist Jasper Rees meets the women in The Woman in White…
It is impossible to overstate the early impact of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Of the great Victorian novels, perhaps only Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and David Copperfield have been as consistently devoured by generation after generation. It was so popular that it created a trend for what we’d now call merchandising: bonnets, cloaks, scents, even dances were named after it. Thackeray stayed up all night reading it. Gladstone cancelled a theatre engagement to finish it, a fact that tells you all you need to know about the relative merits of Victorian fiction and Victorian theatre, to which Collins himself made many long-forgotten contributions, including his own version of the novel.
For this return to the stage, Collins is in the hands of rather more able theatrical practitioners. The Woman in White has been adapted into a long-awaited musical by the new creative team of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyricist David Zippel and playwright Charlotte Jones (Lloyd Webber’s first female collaborator), with Trevor Nunn directing. In some ways, it’s a surprise no one else had the idea of setting it to music before. Readers immediately thrill to the tale of Sir Percival Glyde’s attempts to accede to the fortune of his young wife, Laura Fairlie, and the efforts of her painting tutor Walter Hartright and her half-sister Marian Halcombe to foil him.
But, absorbing as the plot is, the ultimate attraction of the book is its richly fascinating characters. Glyde’s accomplice is the far more cunning and sinister Count Fosco – “one of the best villains in Victorian fiction,” says Lloyd Webber. A charismatically obese Italian who travels with a menagerie of pets, Fosco is a great stage villain who has somehow found himself in a novel. There is a sense that this musical puts Fosco back where he belongs, just as it puts Michael Crawford, who plays him, back on the West End stage for the first time since The Phantom of the Opera. Crawford is an actor “who will take the heart by the throat,” says Lloyd Webber.
So addictive is the novel that Collins is sometimes seen as a prototype television dramatist. The two novels on which his reputation rests are commonly agreed to have kicked off the genres that are now the bread and butter of the small screen; The Woman in White is the first thriller, The Moonstone the first detective yarn. And, of course, Collins wrote in serial form. He was in his mid-thirties, with a decade of unremarked hackwork behind him, when his novel appeared between November 1859 and August 1860. It was published in both his friend Dickens’s new rag, All the Year Round – which had just announced itself with A Tale of Two Cities – and Harper’s Magazine in America.
There may have been several silent films, a talkie or two, and three BBC television adaptations but, as Charlotte Jones discovered, Collins sets a difficult hurdle for those adapting him. “He has a series of narrators, so you get the same events from different points of view. It works brilliantly in the novel. We can’t do it on stage. The way I hope we recreate it is to have loads of twists and turns in the plot, and at each point you trust the person and then that person does something untrustworthy. You get the shifting sands. You are always questioning who to trust.”
The musical’s other task is to smooth out the wilder coincidences that formed part of the staple diet of the novel’s first readership. Collins’ recipe for a successful narrative was: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait”. But he also made ’em swallow some implausible plot twists. One hinges on the likeness between Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick, a ghostly woman clad entirely in white who sets the plot in motion by accosting Walter Hartright one dark night. According to Angela Christian, the young American actress who plays Anne, the physical similarity is not as important. “The weight of the story doesn’t lie in the likeness,” she explains.
There may only be one woman in the title, but there are three women at the heart of the story. The opening line of the book is, “This is the story of what a woman’s patience can endure, and a man’s resolution can achieve.” Charlotte Jones hoped to reverse the line. “I just thought all along it must be a story about women’s resolution rather than men’s,” she says. Angela Christian and her compatriot Jill Paice, who plays Laura, are joined by a leading lady of the British musical stage: Marian Halcombe is in the safe hands of Maria Friedman, a past winner of three Olivier awards (for Ragtime, Sondheim’s Passion and Maria Friedman by Special Arrangement) and nominee for three more.
Collins’s readers had never encountered a character like Marian before. For the first time, an English novelist relieved his heroine of the duty to be beautiful. Marian is swarthy, big-jawed, with a low brow, a man’s mouth, wiry black hair and, just to ice that cake, the makings of an impressive moustache. But she’s jolly resourceful. Friedman is not the first luminous actress to be miscast on these grounds, but Jones has taken it upon herself to make some adjustments. “I think Wilkie did a fantastic job with her. She’s very girl-power. I just found it extraordinary that in order for her to be brave she has to be ugly and old and have no money. Collins totally desexed her. And yet, when the book came out, all these men wrote to him and said, ‘Tell me whom she’s based on. I want to marry her.’ The main thing we’ve done is give her an emotional life and she has romantic ambitions. She’s not just motivated by sisterly feelings.”
“The risks she takes are for sisterly love,” says Maria Friedman, “but as a consequence she lays herself open to her own emotional journey. The sacrifices that she has to make are huge.” Clearly Marian’s romantic yearnings make for a more adventurous role to sing. “She’s got a real variety. She scans everything from comedy to tragedy. She’s witty and bright so you’ve got that recitative, and then really big ballads with some great soaring notes because she’s got a big heart.” As part of the set for her residency at the Carlyle Rooms in New York earlier this year, Maria sang Walter’s song, “Ever More Without You”, because it stands alone. “That’s obviously going to be a hit song. The songs are very tightly written and the lyrics lend themselves to the story. But I’ve got two favourites. One of them, ‘Trying Not to Notice’, is a trio with Walter and Laura. The other is ‘As We Were’, which I sing to Walter.”
The book of the show locates not only the sex appeal of Marian but also the spine of mousy little Laura. “In the novel,” says Jones, “she’s always fainting. I hope that this Laura breaks the Victorian mould.” Jill agrees: “She is very different in the musical. In the book, she never speaks. She never gets to tell the story from her point of view. David and Charlotte have helped to express what’s going on inside her. They definitely give her a soul and some courage that is not in the book. She starts off the way the book represents her, but she gains much more strength.”
This slow discovery of her own strength is reflected musically, says Jill. “Marian is so much more grounded and courageous and so she sings the lower, more belty stuff, whereas Laura is more soprano and high and fragile. As she experiences what happens to her, she gets lower and lower and this inner rage comes out in her. Andrew Lloyd Webber always writes these fantastic melodies with these sweeping orchestrations. It could be too much, but here it just brings to life the inner side of the character.”
Meanwhile, there is the woman in white herself. The role of Anne Catherick is relatively small, but Lloyd Webber has given her a huge box of fireworks to play with. “She has a very childish persona which contrasts with her violent, hysterical, wild animal-like quality,” says Angela Christian. “It’s fun to explore those pure angelic areas where she’s cooing on some soft line and then just thrust these screams and belts against it. It’s always unpredictable. You never know where she’s going mentally until you are assaulted with it musically.”
Lloyd Webber is famously a devotee of all things Victorian, and no narrative from the 19th century is quite so suited to the arcs and sweeps of his compositional style. But there is one final warning for the novel’s many fans. To enhance the air of claustrophobia that haunts the novel and tighten the focus, the musical has effected a ruthless cull of the story’s myriad peripheral characters. “The one I was sad to lose was Madame Fosco,” says Jones. “She never says anything, but she’s an incredible presence. But I made the decision that I wanted there to be a fatal attraction between Fosco and Marian.” And does anything come of it? Well, the show is bound to make us laugh and make us cry, but it will also make us wait.
This feature first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Theatregoer magazine.
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