‘It’s just your imagination’
Picture the scene. It’s a dark winter’s night in Victorian England; you’ve warmed yourself by the fire, supped at the table, slipped into the arm chair closest to the hearth, and what springs to mind for an evening’s reading? A ghost story. Everyone loves a ghost story. This might account for the fact that York Theatre Royal is packed out right up to where I’m sat in the gallery. When I think of the number of times I’ve been to the Theatre Royal I’ve neither sat in the gallery nor seen anyone sat here. Tonight however, it is full to the top and brimming with anticipation. We’re all here to see (or rather not to see) The Woman in Black. Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s bestselling novel is now in its 25th year at the West End and continues to excite audiences which first experienced the phenomenon back in 1987. Walking in to the theatre I can feel the expectation flickering around the room – the whispers of conversation casting premonitory shadows. Because the theatre is full to capacity this change of atmosphere is as tangible as the change of temperature from one room to another. It is an effect I have scarcely felt in all my theatre-going days and, before I begin, I think I should let you know that I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat when it comes to the torch and bed-sheet stuff. Indeed, what better person to send to a play renowned for its ability to frighten.
The stage is minimal, quite a contrast to the luxuriously furnished set I witnessed in the rendition of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (a ‘ghost’ story in quite a different vein). Positioned on the stage are a couple of chairs, a wicker basket and two doors (one leading off the other providing a throughway to the hidden space upstage). To the back of the stage is a thin diaphanous veil. That’s it. There are only two acknowledged members of the cast in the programme: Malcolm James plays a solicitor, Arthur Kipps, a man haunted by events 30 years earlier, who re-enacts them with ‘The Actor’, played by Matt Connor. Out of these meagre materials – the limitations of a scant budget – Stephen Mallatratt created a masterpiece of innovative theatre. It’s a performance in which everything has to work overtime whether it be the props or the actors. Multipurpose underlies the staging of The Woman in Black: the wicker basket serves as a desk, a train carriage, a bed, a horse and trap, and an altar; through the slick change of clothes, accents and mannerisms the two actors represent a whole dramatis personae; the lighting distinguishes the various phases of the day, whether the scene is situated inside or out, and colours the various abodes in which the action takes place.
Aside from these usual requirements, the lighting also must demarcate the distinction of which Arthur Kipps is being displayed: at the beginning of the play the scene is that of the aged Kipps – post-haunting – consulting ‘the actor’ on how best to retell his ghastly story. This introductory scene quickly transforms into the actual events themselves and throughout the play the action slips in and out of this metatheatrical model whereby the events of Kipps’ harrowing story are punctuated by the ‘here and now’ conversations he has with the actor. By intricately threading these temporal shifts into the material of the play, Mallatratt relegates the haunting image of the Woman in Black to the past whilst simultaneously imposing her awful image on the present. Indeed it is in the ‘here and now’ that the play finishes with a sickly twist and recognition that would glut even Aristotle.
Metatheatre, by definition, is a device which draws attention to a play’s own fictitiousness and this has a profound effect upon the way in which we, the audience, view the play. In drawing our attention to the very facets of the play’s dramatisation Mallatratt is sharpening our senses. The fact that the stage is so ascetically furnished means that we are all the more sensitive to any change in the layout of the set which is increasingly important when, through the veil at the back of the stage, other rooms previously out of sight are revealed: in a moment which chills the blood, we see an empty rocking chair manically swaying in the child’s bedroom. Indeed, it is not by chance that ‘The Actor’ casually remarks to Kipps how effective recorded sounds can be when used for dramatic purposes. Once again this is Mallatratt enhancing our sensorial reception: when we hear the rhythmical rocking of the chair upstairs or the clock ticking, the sense of ominous anticipation is being fed. It is interesting that, aside from the poster, the most abiding impression of Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws is the infamous use of those two notes, that quaver ostinato which encapsulates all of the accompanying fear, suspense and realisation that you should probably get out of the water. A similar effect is achieved in The Woman in Black whereby the fear of approaching peril is made unbearable by a lingering sense of vulnerability. The only music in The Woman in Black is the frail, innocuous notes of Brahms ‘Lullaby’ being played on a music box – first by Kipps and then sinisterly by the Woman in Black. All of these portents mark the presence of the woman whose appearance is, by and large, emphasised in complete blackness. In the programme, the omission of any reference to the Woman in Black paradoxically enhances the sense of her omnipresence. Despite being the play’s eponymous identity, this bombazine spectre is scarcely revealed to the audience – we are only afforded glimpses of her sinister outline. Given that her fictitiousness is not stamped authoritatively by the programme, we aren’t allowed to escape the theatre safe in the knowledge that ‘it was just a story’. If metatheatre and the idea of emphasising the play’s theatricality draws in the audience and brings them into the play one might ask ‘what is being let out of the play?’ or rather, ‘who is being let out of the play?’
As the director Robin Herford aptly puts it, this is a production which harnesses the ‘most precious and under used of commodities’: our imagination. He should know – he’s directed every cast since the original in 1987. In few other genres of theatre is it quite so appropriate to describe the audience as a collective entity rather than a composite of people collected in a room. In ghost stories of this sort however, I find such a distinction apt. The apprehension before the play’s performance supports this notion: there’s a repetition of phrases which I overhear while I struggle to find my seat: “I’ve heard she comes out into the audience”, “apparently it’s scarier than the film” and so on and so forth. These sort of remarks only serve to embolden the sense of fear when it actually arrives; in the darkness of the theatre with the smoke and the candlelight the nervous tremblings of conversation make a fine platform for the Woman in Black even before she arrives. As I’ve already hinted, the moments which frightened me most were when the sense of her imminent appearance was at its greatest. That is, not when she had arrived but in the moment just before she arrived. Along with the rocking chair and the eerie music box, the moment of great suspense was when Kipps, kindling the weak light of a candle, was unaware of the shadow which moved along the wall: a long hand gesturing as if to reach and take Kipps in its grasp. Needless to say the Woman in Black soon made her due stage call.
Some plays leave me questioning the world, pondering the profound notions our existence; other plays see me prancing to the exit with many a bounce and chuckle. The Woman in Black suitably unnerved me. I spent the walk home, and indeed the rest of the evening, jumping at shadows and aimlessly trying to dispel the Woman in Black from my thoughts. As I write this from the comfort of my well-lit room I can comfrotably say that whether you’re a timid creature like me or the veteran of horror movies, this is not a show to miss!