The Woman in Black: the haunting continues
A lonely chair in the far left of the stage, another one next to a rectangular basket in the middle of the stage and two talented actors to move them around. This is all it took to breathe life into Susan Hill’s spine-tingling horror “The Woman in Black”.
Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt, this West End production has thrilled and chilled theatregoers for over three decades. It sees Arthur Kipps, a retired solicitor who in an attempt to free his soul from the suffocating burden of living a supernatural experience, employs a young actor to help him tell his story. The two men then turn the frightening memories of encountering a spectre of a woman dressed in black, into a play.
Robin Herford’s production is a gripping theatrical ode to Hill’s novel and while one can argue against its movie version, no one could ever contest this genuinely spectacular dramatization. Perhaps the “cast refreshment” happening every nine months that brings new actors on stage, each with unique interpretations, partly contributes to the play’s longevity and charm. This time, the story came to life through the animated multi-character performance of actors Terence Wilton and James Byng. They would shift from one character to another by a simple change of a coat or a hat.
What makes the play stand out is its intricate stagecraft – one big technical triumph. The stage set, the lighting and the sound effects create an atmospheric synergy that immerses the audience into the ghostly story and forces it to participate with shudders, gasps and muffled screams. Some muddy green curtains and wooden floors splotched in a similar greenish colour construct the story’s claustrophobic and eerie atmosphere. A clever use of props gets the audience to travel across marshes, through sea frets, in different cities, to Eel Marsh House or Crythin Gifford’s church. And the sound arrangements wedded with the sensational lighting games appeal to its senses and tricks the audience into believing the projections of their own imagination.
For this, we must bow before the creative geniuses of Gareth Owen, the sound designer and Kevin Sleep, the lighting designer. Jangly sounds, screams or disturbing ambience sounds transports the audience into the story and induce it a sense of distress, uneasy terror. More than being a mere element of the scenery, the lighting sometimes correlates with the characters’ emotional and mental state.
The play has a carefully constructed crescendo tempo. As tension cumulates in the beginning of the show and the comedy subtly melts away, the captivated audience is left hanging in a torturous waiting for the woman in black. The play gains momentum in its second half when playing upon the audience’s expectancy, it strikes. A figure dressed in black with a pale visage and dark eyes materialises on the stage. The now ultra-charged audience is blown away and greets its vivid presence with squeals and screams. The play seems to work on this simple and classic way of stealing screams from the audience. The slamming doors, an old rocking chair swinging by itself or the deserted places are all simple “Victorian tricks” as actor Wilton explains.
The second half of the play is galloping its way to the end through lightning-striking climatic scenes. They swiftly flash one after another sending chills down the spine of the audience. And the fast-evolving climax showing the young Kipps entering the child’s room and facing the woman in black can cost you a blink of an eye.
The twisted ending sends shock waves through the audience. It happens when petrified, the characters come to realise that the woman in black initially believed to be an actress, was, in fact, the real ghost. This leaves us all wondering: will the Woman in Black come to haunt us, the audience who have seen the play?