On the 29th of November I went to see the woman in black at the fortune theatre in London. The play was adapted from Susan Hill’s original novel, ‘The Woman in Black’, by Stephan Mallart into a semi-naturalistic play within a play. The book pulled on themes from Victorian ghost stories, making it a horror filled with anticipation, the constant air of suspense with underlying menace and threat is replicated superbly.
The director, Robin Herford, uses theatrical techniques to ignite and excite our imagination, forcing us to imagine something far worse than what we are actually seeing. Herford’s main intention is to scare us, something, judging by the constant screams, he does quite well. The play also continuously hints towards its period setting, showing the era through the period costume, like bowler hats, and referring to ‘modern’ technology, like recorded sound.
The theatre itself appeared to be from the Victorian era and is a proscenium arch with a thrust coming out of the CS. The thrust was used by both David Acton and Ben Deery to come out of their various characters and narrate parts of the story, speaking directly to the audience. For the majority of the play a fourth wall was created, but as the thrust came out of the stage it seemed to also come out of the fourth wall. The theatre was also small, making us feel trapped and intensifying the experience because the audience feed off each other’s emotions.
When we first entered the theatre we noticed how the stage was set with an odd assortment of unclean, well used items (a chair, a wicker basket, a costume rail covered in a dirty sheet, two buckets and an abandoned piece of scenery placed slightly off stage). The props had no obvious connection and appeared to have no purpose, creating the image of a theatre in the dark, as was the intention of both director, Robin Herford, and designer, Michael Holt. This effect was also created by the dull, dark colours of the props and set. The lack of set also enhanced the idea of an abandoned, unused theatre. A grey gauze obscured the back half of the stage and the floor was painted to look like old wooden floor boards, giving us no real indication of where the play was set and added to the bleak and empty feel. The floor had been painted so that it was darker near the edges and lighter near the middle, focusing our attention and intensifying the play.
The play started with Mr (R-)Kipps (R-Kipps refers to real Kipps, Mr kipps to actor in role) walking onstage. There was no indication from lighting or sound that the play had begun as neither changed, even the house lights didn’t go down. This, the lack of set and Mr (R-)Kipps repeating and tripping over his lines gave an immediate amateurish feel to the production. However Mr (R-)Kipps was then interrupted by the actor, who was standing behind the people sitting in the stalls, making them jump.
He referred to all the empty seats as he made his way up to the stage, making it clear that the play was set in a theatre and that we weren’t really there, creating a fourth wall. The fact that the lighting and sound hadn’t changed made us think that the production was set in the theatre we were sitting in, immediately making the play (and the non-existent threat of the woman in black) more realistic. The actors were performing for a long time before the house lights finally faded out, allowing us to be slowly drawn in and as the story darkened so did the stage lighting and the seating area around us.
The key way in which they differentiated between the play (the Actor helping Mr (R-)Kipps) and the play within the play (PWP) (the Actor playing Mr Kipps) was the use of sound and lighting. The PWP used a vast array of sound and lighting drawing us into the story, where as the play used a basic wash of white light, and if a sound effect was added it was always commented upon (e.g. the clock ticking to make the office), and had only been added in the first place as it was going to be used in the PWP.
The Actor communicated with the imaginary sound technician Mr Bruce by moving DS, looking up, past audience and clicking his fingers to do this. He would also click his fingers at Mr Bruce to snap out of the PWP. This was extremely effective as we were always aware of which play we were viewing. However I found it annoying as after they had been building up tension in the PWP to suddenly snap out of it destroyed the tension and took us away from the story, making us once again aware that we were watching a play. This also made the scenes that took part in the play seemed long and drawn out, as the lack of lighting and sound meant that the play relied solely on the acting, script and plot, weakening the overall production.
However the performances during the PWP were fantastic. David Acton convincingly became a variety of different characters, convincingly changing his accent for each character depending on their class and area they lived (e.g. country accent) as well as giving them certain characteristic, for instance Tomes’s sniff. The tone and pace of his voice would also change, for instance Keckwick had a slow, deep, emotionless voice with a thick country accent. He also had an emotionless facial expression and was hunched over, creating a secrecy about the character that made us very wary of him. His transformation between the different characters was also aided with simple costume changes that dictated the class and background of the character, as well as suiting the situation they were currently in.
For example to become Keckwick he donned a dark green coat, an old scarf and brown hat. All the items looked well used, inexpensive and were darkly coloured, suitably making the character looked dressed for a cold night or day, showing he is working-class as well as indicating to the audience that the characters were outside. Where as to be Mr Jerome at the funeral he dressed smartly in a black suit and top hat (middle or upper class), again this suited the character and the situation. The majority of the costume changes were done on stage with the open use of a clothes rail. This is a Brechtian technique that asks the audience to suspend their disbelief and momentarily breaks the fourth wall. However we were perfectly happy to accept the actors doing it, as we simply believed him to be Mr Kipps acting.