Adaptor: Stephen Mallatratt
Venue: York Theatre Royal
Many of you will be familiar with the haunting story of The Woman in Black, all thanks to the recent film adaptation starring the world’s most famous wand-waver Daniel Radcliffe. But the gothic thriller was originally a novel by Susan Hill which subsequently was reworked by Stephen Mallatratt into an award winning play.
An aging Arthur Kipps (Julian Forsyth) is haunted by sinister events that befell him 30 years earlier. In an effort to exorcise his demons, he hires an actor (Antony Eden) to help him tell his story for an invited audience. The action bounces between the past and the present as the two men act out Mr Kipps’ tale and revert back to their original characters at the end of each day. The play provides an excellent example of meta-drama as the audience start to lose themselves watching Mr Kipps’ story, and then step back to “reality”, the theatre. Having multiple story lines immerses the audience into the fictional world, and this technique plays a crucial part in the performance’s final twist.
The most impressive feature of the play is the set itself. With only a few wooden chairs and a wicker basket, the audience is forced to use their imagination to visualize the ghastly happenings. The sound effects add a sense of realism, as Mr Kipps phrases it, and a number of well-timed creaks and thuds had the audience clinging to one another in the chilling fog which billowed off the stage.
Rather ironically, I felt the weakest part of the performance was the Woman in Black herself, with no lines and minimal stage direction it should be impossible to go wrong. The direction of the Woman in Black was weak, leaving her not as horrific as in previous productions, although her presence was undoubtedly chilling. The sound effects of her screams were not authentic and the gestures of throwing out her arms and bearing her face at the climax of the play were too slow and melodramatic. Subtlety is the key to inducing terror in this play: by revealing her face in this way the director jeopardized the illusionary presence she had previously held.
These niggles aside, The Woman in Black really is a play like no other. Its ability to creep inside the audiences mind is extremely perturbing. The simplicity of the set and minimal cast goes a long way in exercising the audience’s imagination. As we left the theatre, the atmosphere was undeniably jittery and I saw a fair few eyes dart up to the high windows in the buildings around us as if to glimpse the fleeting shadow of the Woman in Black.