Beyond The Curtain: Susan Hill on "The Woman In Black"
As a nation, there’s nearly nothing else we enjoy more than bundling into a theatre, family members in tow, each clinging a bag of Quality Street from a big tin, to enjoy the annual big, brash pantomime or a glistening, classic musical. It’s almost impossible to imagine being sat between your nan and your small nephew to settle down and enjoy a ghost story over the holidays.
In Scarbrough, 1987, it was a completely different story. At the Stephen Joseph Theatre, a new play by Stephen Mallatrat opened in the bar to offer an alternative to dames and princesses. The Woman in Black is adapted from a 1983 novel of the same name by Susan Hill, and follows the story of retired solicitor, Arthur Kipp. When one of his clients dies, he travels to a small market town to attend her funeral and check through private papers at her home; which during high tide becomes isolated due to the marshes. Though, his journey sees him face chilling encounters with a woman dressed in black as he is forced to uncover who she is - whether he likes it or not.
Starring only two actors, and an imaginary dog, the play wrecks havoc with your senses, forcing you to use your imagination and allow yourself to be truly scared. With minimal set design, but carefully planned light and sound effects, it fully encompasses audiences as part of the action by playing with every bated breath and released scream. The show follows Kipp employing a young actor to assist with putting on a play to help him deliver his obsession with a troubling curse he believes to have been cast over his family by a Woman in Black whom he had met years previous. The result, means that lines are blurred and narratives are twisted with reality. And, that you'll probably jump and drop your toffees.
Having terrified audiences on the West End for thirty years, as part of its UK tour, The Woman in Black is arriving at Curve from Mon 20 Jan to Sat 25 Jan. As if the New Year wasn't scary enough! Curve sat down with the acclaimed author of the original novel, Susan Hill, to find out all about how she came up with the spooky story of The Woman in Black and what it’s like seeing your work told on stage.
Did you anticipate this longevity when the show first opened?
Oh no, we thought it would run for six weeks! It opened in Scarborough in 1988, and it started because they had a pantomime on in the theatre and Alan Aykborn who was the Artistic Director wanted to have something to put into the studio theatre alongside the pantomime. Stephen Mallatrat went on holiday and at the airport he picked up The Woman in Black. He was then lying on a beach in Greece and thought he could make this work on the stage. When he wrote to me asking if he could adapt it I thought it was mad but it’s a truly remarkable piece of theatre.
Were you nervous about handing over your story to a new team when you were originally approached about adapting the novel to the stage?
Not at all! The play is very true to the book and yet simultaneously very different by nature of being a piece of theatre. It works brilliantly in theatrical terms and it is still my book, but it is also not – and that is exciting.
What was it like the first time you saw your characters appearing in the flesh on stage?
The Woman in Black herself very much existed in my mind, I knew what she felt like, so it is very peculiar to feel her presence in a theatre. The two gentlemen are such brilliantly developed characters and utilised so well by Stephen’s writing for the stage that they become quite different. I’m always interested to see new actors taking it over, because although it is the same text, every pair of actors bring something different to it, it really does change!
Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation uses some very traditional theatrical techniques in very innovative ways. Does the play capture the atmosphere of Eel Marsh House the way you envisioned it?
I think the great thing about the show is that it really does use the theatre, the stage, and it makes the audience work. Stephen Mallatratt’s writing makes you use your imagination, and that’s the brilliance of it and also what makes some elements all the more scary!
Where did your original idea for The Woman in Black come from?
I have always loved reading ghost stories but had realised that in recent years not a lot had been written. People were writing horror, but horror is different to me. You can have a horror story that doesn’t have a ghost, whereas a ghost story could be horror but also could be unnerving in a different way or even heartbreaking.
I ended up making a list of the key elements I thought a good ghost story should have and worked from that. I thought it should have atmosphere, lots of atmosphere, an isolated location which in itself is unnerving, and I was absolutely sure that the ghost needed a reason to be there. I wasn’t sure at first whether that would be because they wanted revenge, or they needed to communicate with the living world, but I knew they had to have motivation.
The Woman in Black, she came to me straight away – I wanted her to be a woman and of her period. Then various things that I had found alarming as a child came back into my mind and I wanted to incorporate them including the image of the dusty, cobweb covered nursery which I always think has elements of Miss Havisham in it.
Why do you think we as readers or audience members enjoy being scared?
It’s a funny thing isn’t it? It’s a very primitive instinct, to be frightened. However, the joy of a ghost story is that it is just practice really, we are being frightened delightfully. Whilst we may jump and scream in the theatre, we know that we are safe and can allow ourselves to be scared which I think is essential! Perhaps it is our way of learning to manage our fears?
How does it make you feel when you hear the audience reactions to The Woman in Black?
I’ve seen it so many times and yet sometimes it even makes me jump! I place like to watch the show from is from the wings and be able to see the audience from that angle. It’s especially good when you have school parties in who aren’t expecting to be frightened but then as it begins to get tense suddenly you see the body language of the whole audience shift. Sometimes people react really strongly and shout things out almost involuntarily as they’re so involved in the action on stage!
Do you believe in ghosts?
I think I do, in a sense. I’ve never seen one (as far as I know!), but enough people I know have been in a place which emanates a sense of evil and have felt the urge to immediately get away from it. Also, you always hear of dogs having that sense of something not being right, being spooked, and why would an animal make that up?
For lots of young people, coming to see The Woman in Black will be their first experience of live theatre. What do you advise they look out for?
Go into the theatre with an open mind and try to immerse yourself in the show. Allow yourself to imagine everything the show invites you to!
The Woman in Black comes to Curve from Mon 20 Jan to Sat 25 Jan. For more information and tickets visit www.curveonline.co.uk