On the 19th April I attended the performance of ‘The Woman in Black’ in the New Theatre in Cardiff. Not only was the spine tingling ghost story very well performed and presented but it also had the eerie effect that made you jump out of your seats at unexpected moments, especially as it climaxed towards the end. The Woman in Black was first performed at the theatre-by-the-sea in Scarborough back in 1987. The original production received enthusiastic reviews, making the way for future productions throughout the country.
It reached the West End in 1989 where it has drawn in audiences ever since. ‘The Woman in Black’ is about a young man and junior solicitor, Arthur Kipps who visits the tall and isolated Eel Marsh House to sort out papers after the death of Alice Drablow, a woman who lived and died alone in the house after giving up her only son to her sister. Being alone in the house during his stay, apart from having a friendly dog for a companion, makes him more suspicious yet unaware of the real story behind her death and as the story progresses he becomes more and more curious.
The woman in black enters at the start of the play, almost appearing out of nowhere as a dim light sets on her when Arthur Kipps notices her presence at the back of Mrs Drablows funeral. She enters slowly into this scene from steps at the bottom of the stage. With her black clothes flowing in the dimmed spotlight and the church window light effect, this created an uneasy suspense leading up to when he actually turns around and sees her.
As she entered the audience could almost feel the fear inside Mr Kipps which created an excellent disturbing atmosphere. The look of her set unease to the whole play from the very start. We never get told who plays the part of the woman in black; this makes the story seem more real as the characters never find out her true identity. She was a young girl with a pale, wasted face, dressed all in black and she always seemed to appear from nowhere in the most unlikely and creepiest of times.
The actor playing young Mr Kipps later sees her again in the graveyard at the back of the house and even though he asks questions and begs for answers the locals do not wish to bring up the tale of the woman in black. Throughout the play she slowly reveals her identity to him and he finally realises her horrifying intentions, as every time someone sets eyes on her, a young child dies. The acting styles, I thought, were brilliant and excellently performed to give the play the spookiness and edge to it.
Even though there were only two actors throughout the whole play, excluding the woman in black, they used their abilities very well and could exchange roles easily and smoothly. When first starting to explain the story, old Mr Kipps was unsure of how to tell the story and create an atmosphere to set the first scene. This worked well as it meant that it created more suspense when he actually started to put feeling into the narration and brought the story alive as it progressed to the more dramatic scenes in the middle of the play.
At the beginning this also added comedy as when the director is telling Mr Kipps to speak up, he constantly talks quietly, and this repetitiveness added a funny side as a contrast to the start and finish of the production. At the start the old Mr Kipps was interpreted very well and the young actor who plays the young Mr Kipps really portrayed the likeness in the old Mr Kipps when re-enacting the story. The use of tone and voice of the narrator, a very sly and menacing voice, also old Mr Kipps, was very well established and set the scenes well.
The two actors held the audiences attention throughout the whole play no matter what role they were playing and the kept a high and tension for the whole performance and they both worked well together. I also thought the parts were performed well as it is hard to play more than one role when there is such a small cast, you could really understand and feel when they had changed characters even if it was just a small prop change like a scarf or a pair of glasses. They could change their accent and tone of voice easily and were very good at changing their physical movements so you could tell what age they were playing too.
I think the director, Robin Herfold, wanted to give people that horrific atmosphere while giving people the pleasure of being scared out of their wits. He really re-created the atmosphere of the English ghost story and I think that she was very successful in carrying this task out because of the simplicity and minimal use of props, lighting, actors, sound effects etc. The lighting was used excellently and really set the scenes at most points in the play like the windows effects in the church and in the house.
You could tell when it was going back to the story and when the actors were back to present when the lights dimmed and brightened. The scenic design was minimal but very well used as if the stage had been crowded with props it would have taking your mind from wandering through your imagination, the props they used were just boxes and coats and chairs except for the nursery scene with the cupboard and the cot and the rocking chair which, for the graveyard scene, was just covered over with dusty sheets to look like gravestones which I thought worked very well.
Costumes and prop changes were very easily exchanged from one scene to the other when changing roles and, again, this was also minimal but used very well. For such a simple play the sound effects created a massive effect, making a very big difference to the play and I think that the trademark sound that really made the whole piece was the woman in black’s screaming which set everyone off into a spine- tingling terror when played in some scenes.
The sound effects were played in dim lighting so that when you couldn’t see what was happening you had vivid images in your head of the scene they were trying to create. Such as the scene where the nursery maid and the little boy crash into the marshes and drown, we can see scary and clear images of them dying and we use our imagination as much as we can to see in our minds what it would look like.
This worked well as everyone then had there own interpretation of there own fear of what might be happening in the scenes instead of actually seeing something that someone else has portrayed on the stage. Other sounds were ticking clocks, horse shoes hitting the road, horses neighing and another eerie trademark sound, the rocking chair. Overall I think that this is a very well performed play and really achieves what it has set out to do and really recreates the story of ‘The Woman In Black’ which leaves us almost scarred and stays in our memories to haunt us.