The Woman in Black: A Thriller Within a Thriller

A two-man show explores the performative force of storytelling: a play within a play with spooky lights and phantom sounds

On The Town | Meredith Castile | February 2013

The two-man show also demonstrates how theatre brings experience to life (Photo: Vienna’s English Theatre)

A man is desperate to rid himself of post-traumatic nightmares and searches for a way to communicate his story: A case worthy of Freud translates into a fine dramatic conceit for Stephen Mallatratt’s gothic hit The Woman in Black, which runs through 2 March at Vienna’s English Theatre.

This compulsively watchable two-actor play, directed by Matthew White and starring Roger Ringrose and Tom Micklem, tells two tales at once: an unfolding ghost story and the framing scenario of its telling. It opens with the ageing Mr. Kipps meeting a young actor he has hired as a consultant to help him prepare an intimate disclosure. Kipps feels driven to tell his family and friends the story he has repressed for years: As a young solicitor dispatched to an isolated house to sort the papers of a deceased client, he encountered ghostly terrors that quietly shattered his life. Now, Kipps hopes that airing his story will at last release him from its psychic grip. But as he and the actor rehearse on stage, representation and reality terrifyingly merge. It will not ruin the ending to say it isn’t exactly reassuring.


Chills and thrills

The play’s ghost story features the tried and true mechanisms of the genre: uncanny appearances in the night, suddenly extinguished candles, phantom sounds, locked rooms, dead children from long ago. (Much credit for the play’s thrills must go to the superb sound and light effects by Nick Richings, Gareth Owen and Theo Holloway.) Be prepared to have your pulse race and your breath catch as these things spring from the darkness. "Pfue! Anstrengend (taxing, stressful)," exhaled one Austrian nearby as the curtain came down at the end. But from the enthusiasm in his voice it was clear this was not a complaint.

That said, Mallatratt’s play is much more than a neo-Gothic potboiler. It is primarily a story about telling a story – a probe into how theatre brings experience to life. As Roger Ringrose’s inspired performance unfolds, we watch the repressed Mr. Kipps shed his self-consciousness and abandon himself to acting all the supporting characters in the story.


Play-acting the props

The talented Tom Micklem likewise acts at acting, playing the actor rehearsing the role of the young Kipps. After a particularly emotional monologue, Micklem’s character explains shakily that he drew from his own life to imagine the young Kipps’ searing grief and horror.

Ringrose, as Kipps, captures a breakthrough moment in which acting a role becomes more emotionally vivid to him than "reality". Describing the experience immediately afterward, he explains, "I was living in an acute dimension. … I had entered some new realm of consciousness and could never go back." In moments such as these, one gets the sense that Ringrose and Micklem draw from their personal understanding of the potency of acting – not just for the audience, but also for the actors.

The theatrical scenario also allows Ringrose and Micklem some well-played moments of ironic humour. In the beginning, for instance, Kipps protests against any attempts to dramatise his account. "I am not a performer."

"No—," Micklem, as The Actor, replies wryly, drawing a hearty laugh from the house.

Later, Ringrose’s character struggles to understand how a bicycle, dog, island or pony and trap could be represented theatrically. In response, The Actor demonstrates the pony and trap, invoking it with stage props and miming. "Nothing in the world could say it clearer."

Kipps responds, "Except a pony and trap."

Bob Bailey, the set and costume designer, provides for these moments of imaginative play with a stripped-down stage. A single article of clothing often denotes Kipps’ changes of character. To "ride a bicycle," Micklem’s character perches on two back-to-back chairs and pedals one leg. These transformations are a delight to watch.


"Imagine this stage..."

In his director’s notes, Matthew White mentions a passage Mallatratt is said to have considered over and again when writing the play – Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V, in which the speaker wishes for a muse that would allow the stage to span the breadth of the kingdoms it represents. Failing such a literal muse, however, Shakespeare’s prologue calls upon the playgoers to summon all the vividness of their imaginations, "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth."

Something of the grandeur of Henry V comes through in The Woman in Black’s famous line describing the haunted house, situated on an estuary and often completely islanded by high tides: "And so, imagine if you would, this stage an island, this aisle a causeway running like a ribbon between the gaunt grey house and the land." Here, the physical theatre itself becomes appropriated as a prop for the isolated setting – just as the chairs were appropriated to stand in for a bicycle. The dramatising imagination does the rest.

Mallatratt’s play follows on some of the greatest English language ghost tales – from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw – as it enacts the transmission of trauma through storytelling. For in his attempt to disburden himself of his psychic trauma, Kipps invokes its terrors in us. Though the theatre brings back life’s vividness, it exorcises no demons.


The Woman in Black

Nightly through 2 Mar. (except Sundays), 19:30

Vienna’s English Theatre

8., Josefsgasse 12

Other articles from this issue