On Friday 9th March 2012 I attended a live performance of one of the West Ends longest running plays; The Woman in Black written by Susan Hill and adapted by Stephen Mallarat at The fortune theatre. The play proved to be a truly spine chilling experience and captured its audience from the start by using various (literary techniques) performance aspects such as sound, lighting, costume and props.
Set in 1920’s England focussed around number of different venues, one of them being an empty Victorian theatre to begin with, and the former market town of Crythin Gifford. However the action centres on the Eel Marsh House; an old building in the middle of a marsh island which is also the previous residence of Mrs Drablow. It comprises of only two characters an elderly Arthur Kipps ‘whose story has to be told’, and a young actor who performs the story of the once junior solicitor. The director combines tone and atmosphere along with certain effective cinematic qualities of a horror/thriller film to achieve the plays chilling effect.
The small stage and intimate quality of The Fortune Theatre made for the perfect venue and intensified the overall experience for the audience because we felt a part of the action, every creek of the floorboards; every daunting footstep was audible and added to the play’s terrifying demeanour. The action cleverly takes place in the very theatre in which we are sitting, and opens with a solicitor Arthur Kipps reading from a diary, then enters a young actor who criticizes his feeble delivery, Arthur Kipps goes on to seek the young actors opinion on how best to voice his experience of the events of 30 years prior, and so they commence to perform the terrifying tale.
The director utilises an extremely minimalistic set, with the props taking on numerous uses, a large wicker props basket makes for a desk, train carriage, a horse and cart and a bed; Adding to the minimalistic theme established a simple changing of coats denotes a new character, and despite its simplicity it couldn’t have been more effective. The audience are transported to the past as the young actor plays Arthur Kipps whilst Kipps himself narrates as well as taking on the role of all the people he came across during his fateful journey to the bleak North East of England.
His purpose is to attend the funeral of former client Mrs Alice Drablow and sort out some of her papers. Kipps discovers that Mrs Drablow inhabited the gothic mansion alone for more than 60 years and later died there; the house is presented to the audience by projection of an image onto the thin curtains of the stage. The events that follow become increasingly more dreadful as during the funeral Kipps catches sight of The Woman in Blacks’ gaunt, wasted and pale face in the distance and from then on terrible consequences occur. Her influence grows as the play reaches its climax and Kipps delves further into the ghastly truth of what happened all those years ago and the ghost that now haunts the house’s terrible purpose.
Lighting used to great effect throughout the play to give it another dimension and add to the tension, for example a bright light was used when the actors were in the office thus indicating the story was not being told, however we, the audience were transported into the past when a dim, half- light was used whilst the story was being performed, this clearly distinguished between the two as well as giving a disturbing quality.
Spot lights were used to isolate certain images projected, important parts of the set and the actors horrified facial expressions at key moments in the play for example when Kipps discovered the writing on the grave stone of Alice Drablow. Whilst Kipps is exploring the mansion at night a single torch offers the only light on stage, the effect of this is to Susan Keats candidate number: 7865 centre number: 22066 increase tension and maximise to shock of any unexpected discovery. The audience engaged with the actor at this point and felt that they were a part of the action as they know no more than what Kipps does.
Sound, both diegetic and non-diegetic were also used effectively during the play, for example whilst the actors were in the horse and carriage the noisy sound effects of hoofs and the clatter of the carriage was utilised, movement was linked to this as the actors were jerked around in the carriage especially going over humps, this made the play more realistic and credible as well as offering a certain comedic value, it lightened the mood which is essential in any horror performance, film or theatre as it lures the audience into a false sense of security which then heightens the shock and alarming quality of the moment/scene that follows.
Another time sound is employed is when the blood curdling scream is heard numerous times throughout, this startles the audience and kept us on edge as we never know when it was going to come. To give the play another dimension a voiceover of Mrs Drablow simultaneously reading an old letter with Kipps fills the theatre, this captures the audience and creates an eerie atmosphere sending a chill down the audience’s spine, as realisation hits us we make connections and the plot develops.
There are numerous other times where sound is utilised to produce the plays frightening attributes. Whilst Kipps is asleep the night he decides to stay over at the Drablow house night, he is suddenly woken by the imaginary dog, ‘Spider’, who was taken along to provide Kipps with some desperately required company and sense of security, he senses something, an ominous rocking noise is then heard in a distant quarter of the house and continues as Kipps decides to investigate, he ascends the staircase gradually, closely followed by ‘Spider’; this is where his footsteps are made audible adding to the tension of the moment.
As he arrives at a door and stops outside the audience notice that the rocking noise has become quieter. Music is also used to add to the plays eeriness, a child’s music box is played during his discovery of an infant’s room. However in contrast to this, music is also employed to give the play a lighter feel for example the music of a fair ground is used at the end despite its spine chilling twist. Dry ice was also used to high effect at times to create the illusion of a foggy marsh that surrounded the mansion. This gave a sense of apprehension and foreboding as well as creating mystery and an impression of the unknown which in turn contributed to the uneasy quality of the play.
In spite of the plays obvious horrifying qualities at times in did have comedic values that eased the tension. The overall thrilling experience of the play was unfortunately tarnished by the frustrating untimely screams of the young school girls seated around me which at times frightened me more than the actual goings on of the performance in front of me. Despite this, for the most part of the play I was either kept on the edge of my seat or had closed eyes in anticipation and dread of what was going to happen.
The performance included a range of acting techniques, lighting, and sound effects, the actors themselves David Acton as Arthur Kipps and Den Deery as The Actor are to be credited for their effective use of communication, miming, body language, proxemics and voice modulation. They delivered a truly amazing and credible performance as they captured the essence of the characters. However at times of shocking moments I think they should have waited for the audience to quieten before they started their next line as it was sometimes unclear.
It is evident that the director Robin Herford gave much thought to the dynamics of the play and overall thrilling ambience as there was not a moment where the audience were not engaged. The great vocal and spatial awareness of actor David Acton really brought his character to life and captured the audience’s attention. In conclusion, I think the director has successfully brought together all these techniques in order to create a spine chilling, captivating and thrilling production of The Woman in Black.