“Imagine if you would this stage is an island. Use your imagination”. These are words uttered early in Act One of the ubiquitous stage adaptation of The Woman in Black. Imagination is most certainly key if one is to truly access the deep psychological provocations of this play. Obviously there is a certain necessity for the actors to carry the story, but essentially terror comes from within. It is in the images we create for ourselves in the absence of any obvious and immediate threat; it is, rather, through the threat which is perceived, that we generate levels of fear which go beyond the explanations of rational consciousness. It is, then, those stage productions which force their audience into such heightened mental states that seem to have the most powerful effect. The production of The Woman in Black is no exception.
The story of The Woman in Black’s creation as a stage play is one of fortunate miscalculation. Back in 1987, Director Robin Hertford was put in charge of running The Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough when he realised there was still some of the annual grant left over, despite the approach to the season’s end. In a rush to put the money to use, Hertford decided he would have resident playwright Stephen Mallatratt put together a ghost story which could be staged quickly and cheaply. The budget was tight, but Mallatratt did something marvellous with what little he had to work with. He took on Susan Hill’s then newly published novel The Woman in Black and transformed it in the most unexpected of ways. He renovated a book consisting of a multitude of characters, and narrowed it down to a script intended for two central actors, who would re-enact the entirety of the tale.
The impact was extraordinary, and with the production now running for its 26th year, it is obvious that the tale struck a chord with its audience. Peter Wilson is now Chief Executive at the Norwich Theatre Royal and was a key participator in facilitating the play’s transition to the West End, where it has been running for over 25 years now. Wilson had directed a play by Mallatratt at Southampton between 1985 and 1986. In the summer of 1988, Mallatratt sent him the script for The Women in Black, which had been performed in Scarborough in the winter of 1987-88.
“What I love about it is the way it knows that there is an audience,” Wilson said. “I love the theatricality of it and the way Stephen has taken Susan’s astounding, brilliant story and turned it into a play that is absolutely justified in its own terms. It’s appealing and it’s dramatic and exciting, and it feels very real. The reason it works so well is Stephen’s framing device – the way the older man hires a young actor to help him act out the scenes in order for him to purge his troubled soul.”
A play within a play, the production uncoils the inner depths of the mind through the re-imagination of events which have passed. Wilson says, “The point about Susan’s book is its being a very literate examination of a kind of spiritual infection which gets passed on through the generations. The brilliance of Stephen’s play is it takes Susan’s very literate, careful examination of this phenomenon and turns it into something which is completely dramatic but has a vein of literacy that runs through. For those who like language, it has other attractions than just fright”.
The Woman in Black runs from Monday 9th February to Saturday 15th. For more information, see below…