The Woman In White has always had a life beyond itself, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical joins the quadrilles and waltzes, cloaks, bonnets and perfumes that accompanied its sensational first appearance in 1860. The novel has also had a long career on stage, adapted quickly by Wilkie Collins himself and by several others since, but, despite the quadrilles, this is the first musical version. It is easy to chart the losses: Collins’s complex narration, his dovetailing of different accounts, the novel’s fascination with documents, letters, diaries and journals, its intricate plotting, and much of its exploration of the enigmatic nature of sexuality and human identity, are gone. The plot is ruthlessly streamlined and Collins’s wilful effrontery restrained: Marian Halcombe (the excellent Maria Friedman), for example, here has no moustache. But the musical shares with the novel a belief that underneath everyday life lies a world of unnegotiable passions that language alone is not adequate to express, and this is its strength.
Charlotte Jones, who wrote the book, takes her powerful opening scene as much from Dickens’s haunting story “The Signalman” as from Collins himself. It is the beginning of a beautifully fluid production by Trevor Nunn, lucid and direct in its narration. It is not a spectacular show, by any means: modern and cinematic in its staging, it avoids the clutter that often mars Victorian period productions. Using video projection onto revolving flats, it moves with great mobility from the open scenes of Limmeridge House to the Gothic confinement of Blackwater Park and the asylum, from country house to London low-life. Through this spatially and temporally disconcerting movement, we are made aware of the uncanniness to be found in the interstices of modern life- in a graveyard or a madhouse, in telegraph wires singing in the wind or sudden death on a railway line.
Strangely enough, Jones shirks the most famous moment, when the hero Walter meets his “deceased” love Laura at her own grave. She also substitutes for Collins’s shocking and tangled revelation of Sir Percival Glyde’s illegitimacy something of a good deal more obvious and familiar, as well as losing his climatic self-immolation Indeed in many ways. Jones makes the show more akin to an earlier melodramatic or Gothic tradition than the more complex psychological explorations of sensation fiction such as Collins’s. Whereas the novel is troubled by the fragility and vulnerability of human identity and sanity, and constantly makes us distrust our sense of who is alive or dead, sane or insane, trustworthy or villainous, here any such doubts are speedily resolved. Laura, in the book, released from the asylum in which she has been wrongly imprisoned, in unrecognised by her uncle and cannot prove who she is. On stage, all is made clear in an instant.
Collins has often been seen as proto-feminist, with his powerfully assertive women characters and questioning of male power and sexuality. This show rightly keeps the three main women characters- Laura, her half-sister Marian and her near-double Anne Catherick- at its moral and dramatic centre, but loses much of the complexity of the men: Edward Petherbridge’s Frederick Farlie is a good deal less sexually and morally ambiguous than in the book and Sir Percival (Oliver Darley) is simply a stock bad aristocrat. Michael Crawford’s fat-suited, prosthetic-jowled Count Fosco is the biggest thing in the show, in every sense a seductive villain trapped in an absurd body and poodle’s haircut. At a crucial moment, Jones cuts through Collins’s complex plotting by having Marian pretend to seduce Fosco (in a gown she borrows from the brothel downstairs) in order to find her half-sister’s hiding place. It is arguably the strongest scene in the show, which the grotesquely oral Crawford (who brilliantly succeeds in not being upstaged by a rat crawling all over him) carries off with great vulgar charm. But it also turns the plot into farce and flattens Marian and Fosco’s erotic attraction into something safer and less disconcerting.
And the music? Shortly before his death, Sir Percival complains about the terrible noise in his head, but he is being unfair to Lloyd Webber. There are predictably emphatic climaxes but also some attractive melodies and witty pastiche, at times akin to Rossini, at others achieving a sort of Wilkie-and-Sullivan effect. David Zippel’s lyrics have their occasional thumps (did I hear: “with his hanky/ he’s terribly cranky”?), but are efficient enough. The show is not, as Lucy Snowe put it about a rather different performance in Villette, “a mighty revelation”, but nor is it “a spectacle, low, horrible, immoral”. Indeed, it looks like a hit.
This article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 24/09/04
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