'The Woman In Black' tells the story of a retired solicitor, Arthur Kipps, who writes a play based on his own spooky experiences, that he wants to perform for his family and friends. However, he is nowhere near as charismatic or confident to do it, so he hires an actor to play his own younger self, while he does his crippled best to act as multiple secondary characters. It starts innocently enough, but throughout the story we move from the play to the play-within-the-play, the former serving as tension relief more than anything else.
Photo Credit: Fortune Theatre
The play we’re watching tells a story of a story in the making. A story based on real life, which is in itself the plot of a play we’re watching, based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name. Layered narratives are always interesting to explore, especially if they include a character of a dog called Spider, who is not even there—we, the audience, have to imagine it.
The climax of the “play” takes place in shadowy Eel Marsh House moors that bring to mind a Brontë universe, with a Jane Eyre’s Mrs Rochester-esque figure as the eponymous woman in black, who ignites the audience’s fear by her absence as much as her presence. Add a Hamlet reference, and a dead woman’s quest for revenge, and we’ve got a ghost story. Only that it is not as typical as it would have been if it hadn’t been bringing to question its own facticity.
We move from a middle-aged solicitor who wants to purge his past’s demons away, through an unnamed, over-energized actor (whom no one has apparently heard of) adding “special effects” to an otherwise very organic experiment, up until the moment when—without giving too much away—we don’t know what is fact and what is fiction anymore, what is play and what is “play.” Except that we do. The moment the latter imposes itself upon the former, one where the real characters become haunted by the ghost of the “play,” is the moment when the lights go out, we stand up from our seats, and we float into the fogginess of the real London, with real ghosts.
What about any sort of “deeper meaning” that ghost stories may or may not allegedly lack? Well, the way I see it, writing a play about one’s fears is not the way to get rid of them. Ghosts from the past are raised from the dead when they’re called upon, and trying to create a work of art out of trauma can certainly add nuance to the story, it can help one make peace with it, it might even lure in audiences; but it will not kill the past. It will keep on haunting, both fiction and fact, characters and human beings, and imaginary dogs, too.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell ghost stories, or write plays, and plays within plays. On the contrary—for two hours, I managed not to hastily look for What It All Means, but to simply enjoy the thrills and the acting. The play didn’t need overt spaciousness or props, it needed us to merely fill out the intimately cramped space with the terrors of our own imaginations.