Friday, February 16, 2007

I Won't Watch This During The Seventh Month

When I entered the Fortune Theatre on Russell Street in London’s theatre district earlier this evening, I was somewhat doubtful that a ghost story could be performed successfully on stage. It’s not a murder mystery, where you sit there at the edge of your seats, awaiting the denouement. It’s not a movie, where the judicious use of camera angles and special effects could transform you magically to a land of dread. Instead, with the rest of the audience, you know that the ghost will appear sooner or later, and you know that you ought to be scared.

So, was I? Well, not really. At times, the ghost was – as we say in Singapore – very cartoon, very drama. But that did not detract from a most enjoyable night out,

The Sister and I were at a performance of The Woman In Black, after a nice dinner at La Ballerina on Bow Street. Adapted from the horror novel by Susan Hill, the play first took up residence at the Fortune Theatre in 1989, but it was only in recent months that I had heard increasing chatter about what an excellent production it was.

The staging is minimalist. We have only two principal actors, who, between the both of them, play up to half a dozen characters. Of course, there’s the shadowy third character – the eponymous Woman In Black, who floats across the stage, clad in drab black, with her ghastly wasted face just visible enough. There’s no acknowledgement in the programme guide of the actress who plays her, which makes it all the more ridiculously mysterious.

When the curtain rises in the beginning, we see an old lawyer, Arthur Kipps, who has hired an unnamed young actor to help him retell the horrifying events of decades ago, when he was sent by his company to the desolate town of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of one of their clients, the reclusive Mrs Alice Drablow. Little is known of her, except that she lived in a house by the coast, Eel Marsh, accessible only during low tide via a sandy causeway. But perhaps the townsfolk did know quite a bit. Except that they were distinctly reluctant to say more, as Arthur Kipps found out rather quickly.

And as he stayed there in the succeeding days, going through her personal papers, he endures a terrifying sequence of events – strange noises and frightening hauntings by the Woman in Black. Slowly, he pieces the story together, and discovers that the ghost is in fact the dead sister of Mrs Drablow, and every appearance of the Woman In Black would foreshadow the death of a child somewhere, as she takes revenge on the world, after she, too, lost her child to an unfortunate accident. The tragedy, of course, is that the spirit transcends time and space, even appearing after Arthur Kipps leaves Crythin Gifford and starts a family with his beloved Stella. So, it takes little imagination to figure out what happens next.

This was a pretty gripping performance, and you do wonder sometimes how the actors manage to sustain the emotions displayed, night after night, to different audiences. Surely, at some point, it becomes a tedious chore. But if they felt the tiredness, they certainly didn’t show it. It was a good show. And I found it fun, but perhaps not scary enough.


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