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A great, and gastly , ghost story
Woman in Black
Member Name: Ariel_uk
Woman in Black
Date: 05/09/01, updated on 05/09/01 (9784 review reads)
Advantages: Fantastic, involving tale, Increadably effective production, Fantastic acting
Disadvantages: Not for those of a nervus disposition
Since June 1989 the Fortune Theatre in Covent Garden has been home to The Woman in Black, adapted from the Susan Hill novel by Stephen Mallatratt, making this the second longest running West End production, baby sister to the Mousetrap. When we accepted the tickets, I knew nothing more than that it was a ghost story, and the programme, while filling in a lot of information about the process and the cast, is careful not too give away too much of the plot - an example I will try and follow.
The cast is small - two main characters - and the action takes place upon a single set. However this gives the actors a real chance to shine, as this is not least a play about plays, about the act of acting. The action starts with a lone figure, perched at the front of the stage, reading, fumblingly, the first few lines of a memoir, until heartily interrupted from the audience by a man, who, we realise is his producer or acting coach.. This unusual start has the effect of drawing the audience into the world of the play, and sets up the first layer of acting and imagination.
Arthur Kipps (played by Frank Barrie, who made the show for me) has written his memoirs of a particular period of his life, and seeks the assistance of an actor in preparing to present them to an audience of family of friends. Mr. Kipps is at pains to point out that this is not to be an entertainment, rather an accounting of facts, to lay bare the truth of the matter. The Actor is equally adamant that without at least an element of performance, no audience member will stay awake long enough to hear the story.
Thus in the second layer of pretence, The Actor takes on the role of Mr. Kipps for the sake of the future performance, and Mr. Kipps takes on all the supporting roles - of which there must be 12 or 4 in the course of the play. They use a few simple props (a giant wicker travelling case, changes of coats and hats, a suitcase and knapsack) to suggest to their imagined audience, a
nd to the actual playgoers, the changing settings and events. In addition the actual audience has the advantage of some fantastic lighting effects and a 'secondary' set, behind a gauze, where the same shadowed shapes become by turn backstage at the theatre, a graveyard, and the upstairs room of the mysterious haunted house. Further into the play we find Frank Barrie, acting the role of Mr. Kipps, who is acting the role of a longstanding resident of the haunted village, who is accounting, dramatically, his understanding of the original story – some three or four levels of acting and presentation. This could be confusing, and in the initial few minutes it is, but the actors skills in taking on the body language and voice of each sub-character prevents this becoming muddled, and encourages the audience to willingly surrender disbelief.
The actors movement and actions, together with these simple effects and props, create a picture probably more vivid than any film set could equal, using the power of the audience's imagination The chief effect is that of recorded sound, which is used to terrifying effect throughout. Eerie lighting, suspense, and sound create an incredible atmosphere - I didn't scream, but those around me did, and I left the theatre emotionally drained - total catharsis - from the suspense and the shocks. In many ways this is a 'real' ghost story, a bit like Blair Witch in a way, rather than a spooks and special effects show - and all the more chilling for it. Incredible use of fairly basic lighting (drawing the pale face of the Woman in Black out of the shadows, or creating a clawed cage from the shadow of a hand around a nightlight) sets the scene.
The production very cunningly returns us through the levels of acting and storytelling to the present, without ever providing closure upon the Woman in Black, who appears in each level of the story coming closer and closer to reality. By being left out of t
he bowing and applause, and also the programme, she is left 'real' whilst all the other acted roles are stripped away. The pattern of the story sets up a dread in the audience - like Blackbeard, all those who pry into the secrets of the Woman In Black will be punished horrifically. Will The Actor's family be affected by the curse, as he too has pried, and seen the Woman in Black? - will we? In a play of illusions and make believe, not allowing the central Woman to pierce the illusion and step in front of us as a mortal actress leaves the audience unsettled and involved.
This is pure gothic drama - visceral and immediate, acting on emotions not reason, and therein lies its charm. I can't imagine anyone being bored with this, although I certainly wouldn't recommend it for younger children, or anyone who's highly strung. From what I gather in conversation the play bears no real resemblance to the film of the same name, and I am definitely going to have to read the novel to find out how adapted the story as been. But this is a fantastic (in all its meanings) piece of theatre, which suits the slightly shabby, slightly haunted, intimate venue down to the ground.
If you ever get the chance, go and see it - a must if you love horror, or if you've ever sat around telling ghost stories by torchlight, and given yourself the scares! Even if you think you don't like live theatre, this could be the play to change your mind.
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