The Woman In Black
Friday, June 17, 2011 at 9:20PM
Matthew Kopelke in Theatre

Anyone who is a regular reader of The Sunday Talk knows that I am a big fan of the theatre. I love the intimacy on offer, the way in which it can generate emotion in a way that cinema or television cannot. This is particularly true of thriller theatre, something that is quite rare to come across. I am not entirely sure why, as it seems like the theatre is a natural home of such frights. So it was with great delight that the other day I popped along to the Brisbane Arts Theatre to see their production of The Woman in Black. I had been assured during the week on ABC Brisbane radio that it was a super scary production, and contained a few “Oh, f*ck…” moments as well. So did it live up to the ABC’s hype? Sadly, not at all - while the potential was there, it was completely wasted by a Director that clearly didn’t seem to want to scare the audience all that much, with many opportunities missed.

The Woman in Black follows the story of Arthur Kipps, a solicitor, as he journeys to the small town of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs Alice Drablow. Arthur notices a young woman with a wasted face, dressed all in black, standing in the churchyard. Who is she? Why is she there? Confused by the villagers’ reluctance to speak of the woman in black, or even acknowledge her existence, Arthur goes to Mrs Drablow’s former home. Sorting through Mrs Drablow’s papers, he finds a box of letters, and ultimately discovers the dreadful secret of the Woman in Black – and her terrible purpose…

So, the plot summary from the BAT web site sound interesting, doesn’t it? And yes, the storyline itself is really rather interesting. There’s a real Dracula vibe going on here, with a solicitor travelling to a distant place to confront a dark and sinister evil involving death. And in the hands of a competent Director who has a clear vision to wring out every last little bit of fear and emotion from the show, The Woman in Black would have worked. Sadly, Director John Boyce plays it all very safe here, with only the most obvious of scare tactics used. Sure, there are a few moments that do elicit a sharp intake of breath, but overall I found myself thoroughly bored by a very static production, which relied more on speaking dialogue than actually showing us the situation the characters found themselves in.

It would have helped had the show used some tools of the theatre to set an appropriate mood for the piece. A one-off use of a smoke machine, a few minor uses of gels in the lights, and only the faintest glimpses of anything approaching incidental music or atmospheric sound effects, were the only non-performance tools used throughout the show to really make things work. I will admit that some of the lighting was quite effective, particularly in the house interior set behind the scrim. But even there, wasted opportunity piled on top of wasted opportunity left me feeling annoyed, almost angry, that a show with this potential was being wasted. The actors were very good at what they did, and deserved better support from the rest of the production team.

The actual Woman in Black made a few occasional appearances, which was effective at keeping her secret. But then things were ruined towards the end when she eventually appeared in a full stage wash, flattening out her appearance and ensuring any mystery about how they had achieved her very particular look was gone. And Heaven help you if you were sitting in the balcony level of the theatre, as my companion and I were. That meant a lot of of the elements that happened in the audience seating area, itself a technique I abhor as a Director, were lost on us upstairs.

Overall, The Woman in Black was a show with so much potential and promise, but ultimately wasted by a pedestrian and - dare I say it - amateur production. What was good about the show was not supported by the rest of the production, and I walked out of the theatre feeling very let down by what I had just seen. I don’t like heaping negativity on any production, let alone one being produced by people who have clearly put a lot of time and effort into things. But that’s precisely why I felt so let down - when this level of time and effort is put into something, it should be the best it can be. Missed opportunities mean someone didn’t have their eye on the ball.

On the upside, however, it has made me really want to do my own production, just to prove to myself, I guess, how it should be done. The Woman in Black would hopefully like that, methinks…

Think I’ve been too harsh? To check out the show for yourself, click here - and feel free to sound off in the comments section below if you agree or disagree!

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