The Woman in Black comes to Nottingham celebrating its 25th anniversary; its longevity is a testament to the continued success of this frighteningly brilliant, adrenaline-rushing play.
I first saw The Woman in Black at the tender age of thirteen in the West End. It was the second two-hander performance I had encountered at that age, but it was the first that had completely blown me away. Ten years later, seeing it now for a third time and experiencing it in Nottingham away from the play’s West End strong hold, it did not fail to retain its position as one of my favourite plays.
The Woman in Black, principally a fictional horror novel by Susan Hill, was adapted by playwright Stephen Mallatratt in 1987 at the request of friend and director Robin Herford. Herford has continued to direct all subsequent casts since the original in 1987, including the cast currently gracing the stage at Nottingham Theatre Royal. Mallatratt’s alteration of the original plot, creating a play within play enabled the story to be portrayed simply by two actors.
The protagonist Arthur Kipps (Julian Forsyth), a London solicitor, seeks to perform his manuscript on stage, as a means to exorcise his past demons and free himself from his ever troubling nightmares. He enlists the help of an actor (Antony Eden) to make this a reality, and in turn the audience watch his story unfold through the rehearsals and interactions between these two men. Arthur is a man that appears to have been beaten down by life, having little confidence in himself and his ability to dispense his tale; the only thing he is sure of is that his story must be told. Forsyth conveys this beautifully creating early comic relief in the aged Arthur Kipps and compassion for his plight.
Eden has the difficult task of playing the director and also a pre-exisiting character in the form of Kipps. Stepping up to the challenge fearlessly, Eden perfectly portrays young Kipps’ anxieties and attempts at rationalisation and self-reassurance, emotions which become contagious being equally mirrored in the uneasy audience. Through this interweaving of characters and flitting from present to past throughout the play within a play, Mallatratt has truly created an environment that forces the audience to really focus, so as not to miss a beat of a generally fast-paced, ever-changing performance. Forsyth and Eden, at the swish of a scarf or realignment of a chair, must convince us that they have not only in the blink of an eye become a different character, but are indeed in another setting altogether.
Props, costumes and staging are in general kept simplistic; Forsyth and Eden rely on exploiting the audiences’ imagination to transport us from their rehearsals on-stage to the North-East coast where the bulk of the story takes place. There is minimal movement of the actual set. The slightest shifting of chairs or wicker basket is enough to create a bed, writing desk, pony and trap or train compartment out of thin air, maintaining a very organic experience. The use of old fashioned sound recordings (a ticking clock or a horse and cart) sustains the continuity of the time frame in which the play is set, but also adds an extra eerie dimension to the performance.
The use of lighting equally adds to this supernatural dimension. For example, the thin gauze dividing the front and back of the stage when lit at certain angles either exposes or obscures the mystery concerning the inpenetrable woman in black. The Theatre Royal’s Victorian building enhances and compliments the plot, and consequently, dare I say it, trumping the younger 1920s Fortune Theatre in the West End.
As a generation who have grown accustomed to getting their thrills and chills churned out courtesy of Hollywood’s spectacular special effects, you would imagine that we have grown thick-skinned enough to keep at bay goose bumps whilst watching a mere play. Yet those cowering behind their companion’s shoulders, or nervously laughing off a scream or a gasp are a verification that The Woman in Black continues to thrill and scare its audiences. As Kipps himself declares; “I had always known in my heart that the experience would never leave me, that it was now woven into my very fibres,” so did I experience the same effect in my very first viewing of The Woman in Black to my latest, as it continues to be a play like no other that will forever leave its audiences haunted by the experience.
See the Woman in Black at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday 20th October