The Haunting of Hill House is a play spooked by a ghost. That of the 1959 book on which Anthony Neilson’s adaptation is based. Shirley Jackson’s imagination was astonishing. Who else would have described a woman looking into the mirror in the ladies and not knowing which face was hers?
You hear the disconcerting murmurs of her prose in this version of her most famous novel, which has twice been filmed. There is no single grisly secret to be discovered in the feared house in which a group of strangers gather to take part in an investigation into psychic phenomena. What springs out of its walls are what its main character brings with her. She has been cheated of her youth by ministering to a sick mother. She is transfixed by and terrified of sex.
Neilson’s version takes, as it should, liberties. Yet it does not melt enough prose into action. Too much use is made of first-person addresses to the audience. A wonderful theatrical paradox early on shows how much more frightening than words a silence can be. Our heroine (or is she?) comes to the house. The glare of headlights makes holes in the smoky darkness. “I have arrived,” she proclaims. And is engulfed in darkness. The moment of her arrival is that of her disappearance.
A thunderous but enjoyable soundscape by Nick Powell reminds us that this is a co-production with Hammer. As do the projections by 59 Productions. Shadows enlarge and contract like holes in a damaged retina. Walls melt away, spaces expand, objects seem to float. The imprints of gigantic hands appear on wardrobe doors.
Characters have a hard job registering in this welter, but there is a funny performance from Angela Clerkin as a medium, and a coolly glamorous one from Chipo Chung, benefiting from Gabrielle Dalton’s ritzy costumes. Emily Bevan is extraordinary in the lead. Both fragile and frightening, when she comes forward to shake hands, the rest of her body shrinks away, as if any advance were a retreat. There is a first-rate show haunting what is currently on stage. I hope it is allowed to walk the earth.