Trembling Theater Time
An adaptation of Susan Hill’s bestselling ghost story Woman in Black with an unexpected and spooky twist in the tale
"It must be told. I can’t carry the burden any longer." With words full of agony and pain, a tormented figure steps out of the darkness onto the dimly lit stage of Vienna’s International Theatre. It is old Arthur Kipps, whose tale of "fear and confusion, horror and tragedy" will, for the next one and a half hours, keep the audience biting their nails and clinging to their seats.
Woman in Black, which runs through Nov. 6, is a true ghost story, where the power is in the hands of the supernatural – a man’s desperate attempt to free himself from the unbearable torture that was inflicted upon him by a haunted soul. By staging a play about what happened to him years before as a young solicitor, leaving a lingering pain he has found intolerable and memories overshadowed by eternal suffering, Kipps hopes to restore his peace of mind.
"I’m sorry, I’m clearly not a success," says Jack Babb as the English solicitor Arthur Kipps, apologizing to the young actor (Kieran Brown), whose help and assistance Kipps seeks in his endeavors to perform the story. Behind them, decrepit gray curtains hang like the torn edges of a spider’s web, a few sticks of old furniture stand at odd angles on two sides of the stage, a door at the middle. Two lamps shed a bluish light of added weirdness and misery to the stage settings. They turn to the audience, so close that one can see the light in their eyes and every muscle move in their faces.
Tales of horror have a very long and rich history in the British Isles, legends of demons, phantoms and other paranormal phenomena that occur every now and then in small villages and towns. It’s partly the weather, the cold rainy days draped in mist where the fog rolls in at evening across the withered gardens of estates long empty, disquieting human emotions in lives isolated on the moors. So the 1983 novel Woman in Black by Susan Hill recounting the tragic events around the coastal town of Crythin Gifford comes from an honored tradition.
The conventions are familiar: An outsider, the young solicitor Kipps, is sent to sort the bequest of late Alice Drablow, a widow and owner of Eel Marsh House, and so enters a shrouded world apart, where the normal rules do not apply. Adapted as a stage play by Stephen Mallatratt and first performed in 1987 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre-In-The-Round in Scarborough, UK, it soon moved to London’s West End where it has run continuously for 21 years now.
"Performance is an art," the actor comments to his host, as we watch the layers of reality and story telling emerge in this play within a play, locations and settings forming in the words and gestures, in the props of this minimalist set. Babb transformed as narrator, recounts the windy day of late November, when young Kipps is sent off to represent his London firm at a funeral and to sort out late Alice Drablow’s documents; one can almost feel the relentless wind slashing against the young man’s pale face, the ruthless cold chilling him to the bone.
In the uncommon structure of the play everything becomes a riddle, with the riddle of identity overlaying scene and gesture as the two actors reinvent themselves in the many roles. In this isolated, yet still handsome house with its gray stone and slate roof that "stood like some beacon, a lighthouse," where "excitement mingled with alarm," Babb allows the audience to venture into Kipps’ mind, as his interest molts into curiosity and gradually into a disturbing malaise.
Babb turns, raising his voice as a tangled storm churns through the imagined trees, and we see eerie bleakness of the churchyard, where, for the first time, a young woman appears, dressed in black, her face wasted and pale. Kipps stands frozen, shocked and confused – still oblivious to her terrible purpose, that will be revealed as the story unfolds before the eyes of an increasingly uneasy, frightened audience.
The minimal set – the draperies, the old wooden door, a bench and a table with a chair that make up the house – is continuously reinvented as the story develops: the bench turns into a bed, a cabinet functions as the carriage that takes the young solicitor to the city, to the piercing whinnying of horses losing their orientation in the cold darkness. Somewhere we hear the desperate barking of a dog being sucked into the quick sands of the dim marshes, and then the hysterical screams of a child, the mysterious pitter-patter on the squeaking wooden floor of the house, and the unidentifiable knocking and howling that gradually becomes louder until it reaches its unbearable, unforgiving peak – all terrifying, and very convincing.
With every appearance of the woman in black, with every encounter with this haunted soul, Kipps becomes more agitated, more uneasy, leaving him empty, exhausted and lost. While, at first, "he [wanted] an explanation for he [didn’t] believe in ghosts," he is gradually forced to come to terms with the supernatural, as he finally discovers the terrible history of Eel Marsh House. A "curious emptiness" eventually helps him discover the mesmerizing truth about the woman in black, that will not let him go.
It is this very human notion of trying to explain the inexplicable, of trying to define the indefinable, our need to be able to label everything, to make sense of everything that is portrayed in this play. After great ordeal, suffering and loss, Kipps is finally forced to realize that he is unable to grasp what is beyond his understanding, and to accept his fate - imposed on him by the woman in black.
It is the tragedy of a troubled woman who in life was left unfulfilled, who is left with an insatiable desire for the object of her love that is reborn as hatred, and the unassuaged yearning for revenge that will not let go.
A screen adaptation of Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe, is scheduled for release in 2011, and one couldn’t help wondering if – without the aid of special effects – "Harry Potter" would be able to carry the pliable layers of character with which these two able actors had suffused this terrifying story. If he can move away from the crutches of technology to a minimalist naturalism he may yet create a dramatic masterpiece, even on screen.
Woman in Black
Through Nov. 6, Thu-Sat., 19:30
International Theatre Vienna
9., Porzellangasse 8
(01) 319 62 72