Based on the novel by Susan Hill and adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt in 1987, The Woman In Black has become a theatrical horror staple ever since. So much so, in fact, the question buzzing around the auditorium in Cardiff’s New Theatre – full of cult followers, it feels – is not whether one has seen The Woman In Black before, but how many times.
This evening is my first experience of it in the theatre, though I’ve seen and enjoyed the 1989 and 2012 cinematic versions. Directed by Robin Herford, who has overseen every stage production of the show since its debut, The Woman In Black is defined by – and succeeds because of – its simplicity. A cast of two, Arthur Kipps (Malcolm James) and The Actor (Mark Hawkins), barebones staging, and some clever lighting and jump-scare sound effects do all the work.
The narrative structure, meanwhile, is a little more complex. Using the ‘play within a play’ device, the story begins with Kipps in a theatre, bungling through a script and coached by the enthusiastic but unforgiving Actor. Kipps, though not a performer, insists he has a story he must tell, as if exorcising a demon. Gradually, with The Actor playing Kipps and the real Kipps playing every other part, the latter’s confidence grows.
The play they perform involves Kipps, a solicitor, travelling to the remote and eerie Eel Marsh House to settle the estate of the deceased Alice Drablow. There he spends several days poring through paperwork, uncovering the Drablow family’s darkest secrets, and in the process, is haunted by the spectre of a gaunt, pale woman dressed in black…
Horror aficionados will be somewhat prepared for the genre conventions utilised here: the moments of quiet before a loud bang or shriek, the false scares, and the objects and furniture suddenly having lives of their own. However, watching something on a screen provides a barrier of illusionary protection that live theatre lacks – and excitingly so. This is stripped even further back by the story’s framing, as the layer of pretence keeping the ghost contained with Kipps and The Actor’s performance blurs and eventually breaks entirely. By the second act, every dark corner in the theatre, every stray chair squeak, and every incidental movement around you induces paranoia, as if her bony hand might suddenly curl around your shoulder from the seat behind you.
James and Hawkins do a phenomenal job in what must be two of the most demanding roles in all of theatre, with assistance from minimal props, sparsely but effectively used sound effects from Rod Mead and Sebastian Frost, and dramatic lighting – perhaps the real star – designed by Kevin Sleep. As mentioned before, the secret to The Woman In Black is its pared-down restraint, something Herford is well aware of: “On reflection, it is the very economy of the production which is the chief reason for its longevity. Had I access to a more generous budget […] we could have been in grave danger of losing the essential simplicity and innate theatricality with which we currently tell our story.” In a way, this is theatre in its purest form, inviting the audience to fill the stage’s empty spaces with their own imagination, and thus, limitless possibilities.
The Woman In Black, New Theatre, Cardiff, Tue 19 Sept
On until Sat 23 Sept. Tickets: £18-£39 (concessions: £3.50-£6 off). Info: here
words HANNAH COLLINS