It is no secret that cinema and TV screens reign over the horror genre, and for good reason. The rapid development of film technology in the past couple of decades, combined with the use of clever editing and intense camera angles, have resulted in film after film managing to terrify us in any number of ways. Even in literature, authors like Stephen King prove that horror can also be found in the words of a page; the visual imagination required when reading can create a tense, disturbing sensation just the same. However, theatre is not typically a medium we associate with horror and the ability to frighten audiences. Aside from the fact that musicals dominate the theatre scene right now (and it’s fairly difficult to make spontaneous singing seem scary), whilst we can see the story playing out in front of us, theatre lacks the special effects available in film and television – unless you’re watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Nonetheless, there have been a few productions which managed to unnerve their audiences, the most notable of these being The Woman in Black, which has been going strong in London’s West End for 30 years. But how does it do it?
Adapted from Susan Hill’s 1983 novel by Stephen Mallatratt, the production follows a lawyer, Arthur Kipps, who, believing his family to be cursed by the ghostly Woman in Black, enlists an actor to help him tell his story in an attempt to rid himself of his fear. As they delve deeper into the lawyer’s dark tale, mysterious happenings begin to occur. The genius of this play is found in its simplicity; the cast consists of just two actors playing Kipps and The Actor. The Woman does make a few appearances but is not billed in the programme. Of course, the audience are not stupid, and realise that she is played by an actress, yet there is something fairly unsettling about seeing a silent figure appear on stage when you do not necessarily expect them (don’t sit in an aisle seat in the stalls unless you want the fright of your life).
This minimalist approach to the casting extends to the set as well. The standard proscenium arch layout contains a lifting backdrop, a few key props and not much else. This means that the horror of the show relies almost entirely on the actors and their reactions. As an audience, we become so invested in the story they are telling that we scream and jump with them. In addition to this, the production uses sound very heavily to create an immensely chilling atmosphere; the disconcerting moans and cries which came out of nowhere resulted in me sinking lower and lower into my seat as though that would somehow make it stop.
The Woman in Black is a prime example of how theatre can create pure magic, although not necessarily a sort I wish to experience all the time. It doesn’t require any fancy visual effects, but instead utilises exceptional acting and cunning stagecraft to create a piece of work more haunting than most modern horror films. If you’re looking for something different to scare you this Halloween, look no further than the Fortune Theatre; just don’t expect to sleep that night.
The Woman in Black is currently playing at the Fortune Theatre in London.