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The Woman In Black Theatre Review

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The Woman in Black Theatre Review

On Tuesday the 15th of August 2013, I set out with my family to an evening performance of the west end renowned ‘The Woman in Black’ at the Fortune Theatre. Upon entering the theatre I noticed how intimate the space was which I feel had a huge effect on the audience as the play went on, it meant that we were closer to the action therefore completely emerging us into the story. As the plot grew darker and more tense the small theatre added to the fear we all felt by making us feel claustrophobic and restricted, as if we couldn’t get away. We watched Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hills acclaimed novel therefore the show we watched was a story within a story, I was skeptical about this as I felt the continuous interruptions of the tale of Arthur Kipps disturbed the story and made it harder for the audience to immerse themselves in it. However this technique made us feel as if the back story was true and as if the production we were watching itself was produced for the same reason stated in the play, which made it all the more terrifying.

It also provided grounds for the awfully cliché ending, which although it was heavily anticipated since the first sighting of ‘the woman in black’ in the funeral scene, still proved to be highly effective as we all left the theatre desperately clutching onto one another. As the story proceeded the interruptions became less and less, which the director, Robin Hereford, chose wisely as when the story was building up the breaks made the audience impatient to find out what would happen next and kept us on our toes, whereas in the fast paced second act there were fewer interruptions which meant we were thrown head first into the action. The breaks also proved to be quite provoking to the audience’s emotions as the reactions of Arthur Kipps and the actor increased our own fears and anticipations. One criticism that was echoed through almost all of my family members was the slow beginning and the arduous comedy throughout majority of the first act, although it was effective in building up the story, I found it quite boring and repetitive and did not enjoy that aspect of the play. The director used this technique however to strip away any mental preparation or expectations the audience had and bring their guards down to insure a riveting experience. Aside from the mysteriously unnamed woman in black, the whole production only featured two actors which meant that the audience could really engage with their characters which were each delivered very convincingly.

Ken Drury who played Arthur Kipps performed his well rounded character with conviction, he performed particularly well during his role as the narrator, his fast, loud and panicked voice created tension and brought the audience up to their height of terror and his acting as Arthur Kipps provided an endearing character for the audience to connect with. Adam Best who played the actor was confident and loud which showed us the relationship between the two men well, although there was no perceptible change of Adam Best when switching between his two roles he evoked tension and panic in the audience at all moments of distress. The continuous narrative change and the many multi roles used created a very difficult narrative to grasp therefore the director’s choices of lighting change proved to be simple yet innovative.

For the novel scenes a sepia gel was used perhaps to represent the dated story and Arthur Kipps himself and in scenes from the adaptations a bright white gel was used, this clearly distinguished between the two coinciding plots which meant there was no room for misunderstanding and all focus could be devoted to the story. Although the lighting here was efficacious and used naturalistically, lighting was also used in surreal ways throughout the play, and also to represent the weather for realism, for instance the blue icy light and dry ice used for the funeral scene, which I think could foreshadow the dark events to come. One particular scene in which lighting was used as a dramatic technique was the scene in which the young Arthur Kipps discovers the door, from which he can hear the woman in black on the rocking chair behind it. A distinct red light is used to spotlight the door to clearly manifest the horror that lurks behind and capture the attention of the now petrified audience. This was a key aspect to building tension throughout the performance; suggestion. Looking back on the production I realise that the suggestion of the Woman in Black’s appearance was far scarier that her few appearances themselves, by the end half hour the audience were jumping out of their seats at the mere thought that she may make an appearance soon. This is because the director effectively explored the concepts of human fears within this ghost story.

Techniques such as suspense, trepidation and the suggestion of the paranormal are built up throughout the play to successfully create the atmosphere intended. This instils a state of mental insecurity through the audience rendering them vulnerable to basic horror techniques. One key moment that built upon the uneasiness of the audience was in act two leading up to one of the key climactic parts. The young Arthur Kipps is using a candle to light his way around the manor and his hand creates a shadow on the gauze which directs us to think that the woman in black was reaching for him. This simple technique created a synchronous gasp throughout the auditorium, bringing everyone to the edge of their seats. This proved to me how a well directed piece can do so much with so little, which is shown countless times throughout the production. Specifically in the use of props, with only a few minimalist and mundane items they are able to transform scenes and create illusions effortlessly and effectively, for example they were able to transfigure a humble chest hamper into a bed, desk, carriage and horse and trap believably. this not only renders the shows budget minute but adds a somewhat Brechtian style to the story, which is also done with the barren set (perhaps to create the feel of the rehearsal room) and the open use of the clothes rail for the characters to change their accurate and believable costumes.

Another feature used efficiently was the use of gobos which provided an instant scene setter allowing the audience to engage in the scene instantly, without the stage crew having to assemble new sets wasting both time and money. The gobos added to the realism of the story as a whole which in turn made the play far more unnerving as the audience would slip into the belief of the plot. The gobos were not only used for setting purposes but I think to subconsciously influence the audience as well, for instance when the actor is shown to be slowly climbing the staircase it symbolises that the higher he gets the higher the level of danger, it could perhaps even be a symbolic reference to a ‘stairway to heaven’ or could even show that the woman in black, being on a higher physical level, is also higher in power and significance. And with this the audiences fear and anticipation rises along side until the whole theatre is sitting in pin drop silence awaiting something inevitably awful.

A dim light abducts the stage throughout majority of the play to conserve the eerie atmosphere directly relating to the dark story and themes, the darkness alerts the audience as to when to be afraid and this then builds upon the suspense that is rising throughout the whole play. The darkness adds to the intensity as it makes the audience feel uneasy due to the fact that they can’t see where the woman in black may or may not be, in most cases this is paranoia due to the developed trepidation but the unearthly darkness sometimes acts as a useful cover for the woman in black to creep on stage unnoticed before shocking the audience and the characters on stage. In the intimate theatre they had they made the most of the stage space by using a gauze to separate the space, meaning a lot more could be done with two different locations. They were able to show a multitude of different locations one after the other without any confusion whatsoever. Particularly in the scene in which the young Arthur Kipps discovers the rocking chair, he goes from the front to the back of the stage twice all round but each time we are presented clearly with a new room, making the story seem more realistic and adding depth to the setting. This is cleverly done with simple techniques such as lighting; the gauze also creates the possibility for full set changes such as the change between the grave yard and the nursery which are seamless and incredibly effective for the storytelling process.

Another benefit of using the gauze is the diffused vision of the second half of the stage, this again makes us feel uneasy as we cannot see exactly what is going on and makes us worry for the young Arthur Kipps, and of course as the transparency of the gauze is controllable which therefore means it can be used to shock the audience at pivotal moments of suspense by revealing something unnerving. I think perhaps one of the most imperative devices used was that of sound, one particular example which I think anyone who’s seen the show will have a hard time forgetting is the blood curdling scream violently projected from the speakers at the back. Not only is this utterly terrifying because of how sudden this is, but the fact that it is thrown from the very back on the theatre makes us feel trapped, as if the supernatural is all around us, completely involving us in the story and enthralling us in the fear of the narrative. The sounds are also incorporated to emerge us into the story even further, subtle noises are used adequately to set the scene and make us feel as if we are there with the characters, hence building further tension, for example we hear ravens in the scenes set in the graveyard which throws us into the scene as well.  One of the most significant effects, perhaps in the whole show is the inconspicuous noise of heartbeat whenever tension was building, the hastened beating mimicked the heart of everyone in the theatre as the suspense grew, and the audience shrunk back in their seats not knowing when they would be getting a scare, the simple sound effect built a horribly tense atmosphere which proved to be hugely effective.

Perhaps my favourite scene in the whole production was the story of what happened to Arthur Kipp after he’d left Eel Marsh House, the lights are brought up to mimic a sunny haze which relieves the impending doom represented by the dark therefore relieving the audience as well, the actor speaks in a jolly tone that we have not heard since the start of the play and the audience are lulled into a false sense of security because of this. Throughout the performance the audience have been trained to know when a shock is coming because of the repeated tension building techniques, so when none of these things happen in this scene we are utterly taken aback by the sudden down fall and horror that instils us. One criticism to the director however is of the final appearance of the woman in black; I found that the voiced recordings of her were awfully cliché, I would have liked to see something more innovative and mysterious. Aside from that I found The Woman in Black to be an impressive low budget performance that used traditional techniques in a wildly influential way to really parade the power of drama at its finest.

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