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In the West End production of 'The Woman in Black', assess the skills of the two male performers when performing their role(s).
Essay Outline: ‘As Alfred Hitchcock noted, suspense and atmosphere are more potent than scary events themselves’
Part 1 - Introduction
Introduction: ‘The Woman in Black,’ West end mainstay and classic enjoyed by many people since 1989, is a remarkable adaptation of a superb horror novel. Stripped down to a minimal cast by the impressive Stephen Mallatrat who has fitted a cunning theatrical frame around it, the play, which has seen many different duos taking the roles involved in the drama and ‘always bringing something new to it’ , is still to this day a massive hit. Undoubtedly talented, the two actors on stage, Brian Miller and William Rycroft, handled their varied roles superbly and brought the tension and terror inherent in the adaptation forth, using the limited props, large amount of space and excellent writing, to scare the audience witless.
Part 2 – Physical appearance and specific actor traits
Physical and vocal qualities – Vital in creating the characters and expressing the different contexts of the change within the play, in a wonderfully orotund, flamboyant and self confident way, Rycroft educates the storyteller in the ways of theatre and the techniques of acting. Coaching the older ‘Kipps,’ clearly portrayed as a less confident and able man, his magnificent vocal expressions display him as the stereotypical Victorian actor. Especially with a two man cast, it is vital that the ranges of vocal abilities in the two men are expressive and changeable, and there is no doubt that through the different characters portrayed this is in evidence.
Range of facial expressions and other actor skills– Perhaps the most dynamic and vivid use of a facial expression for me, was Rycroft’s reaction to the final twist in which he is asked about providing the ‘woman in black’ as part of the performance. Twisting in horror, his abject terror contrasts beautifully with the perceived ‘pale, wasted face and expression of desperate, yearning malevolence’ of the woman in black. Elsewhere throughout the play, his confident, expressive features work well in expressing the slightly woebegone look of Kipps, the actor who has slipped a little too far into the horrors of his past but still manages to become more adept at ‘performing’ throughout the play. From the self conscious, withdrawn character at the opening, through to his improved attempt at reading Shakespeare and finally onto his ability to switch characters, his facial expressions, and indeed whole character, seems to evolve.
Creation of emotion – In a ‘two hand’ minimalist play, creating base, thrusting emotions within the hearts and minds of the audience is vital in place of spectacular effects, impressive sets or big choral numbers. Indeed, the raw fear and suspense (as well as dark humour) produced by the two actors is extremely well done. Using many of the devices discussed within this essay, and manipulating the vulnerability of the stark setting, they are able to, and carry off a wide range and evolving set of personal movements, expressions and speeches. Coupled with this, the fact that there are only two of them, makes their dialogues, and emotion fuelled actions, paramount to the audience’s concentration span, as they focus on these two purveyors of this simple, chilling and edgy tale.
Part 3: Interaction
Rapport with audience and response/ Use of Black Comedy – Again, I was very impressed with the skills of the two actors in terms of their ideas of audience participation. From the moment that Rycroft came striding up the aisle of the theatre talking about the need to really make the morbid tale ‘live in performance to an audience of family and friends,’ one immediately felt a part of this close knit group. It was as if he was striving to please and perform admirably directly for the benefit of the audience in the theatre itself, and lift the moribund tale for our immediate benefit. The occasional smattering of black comedy in this piece is also beautifully dealt with, Rycroft’s cool delivery of amusing lines giving the audience an element of relief to hold onto, before the actors deliver them once more into the unfurling horror.
Interaction with other performers – The use of the two narrators within the performance allows an additional dimension to be added to the play, with the very process of storytelling and its purpose being investigated, as well as the chilling tale itself. Rycroft is magnificent in portraying the vessel, for which Miller (as Kipps) can relay his tale, and the heated discussions between the two talented performers split the mind away from the horrors somewhat, to concentrate on the issue of truth within a story that may be lost to the ideas of excitement within storytelling. Rycroft is also effective in moulding his reaction subtly differently to each of the different characters that Miller plays, making sure that the changing of characters does not seem stilted.
Part 4 - Setting
Costume – The use of varied costume between the two actors, offers an almost surreal twist to the play, and while Miller is spectacular in manipulating his acting talents to drift between his roles, the occasional modern costume mixed with Victorian imagery does a lot to distort the mind of the already shaky audience. Less really does mean more in this production, and the fact that a mere change of coat can transport the two actors into entirely different roles, speaks volumes of the performances of the two men and the level of versatile performance required to suitably mix up their acting characters.
Space – The key to this play, and inspiration for much of the horror generated by the stark atmosphere, is the power of immense space that setting the adaptation inside an empty Victorian theatre conveys. The feeling of spiritual goings on outside the main two characters is paramount, and Miller and Rycroft are able to exist all over the theatre, bringing the realism and terror to life within a large, empty setting. They have room to build their characters and through use of facial expressions and extravagant posture, utilize it widely.
Part 5 – Interpretation of the on stage atmosphere
Directorial interpretation of play – Mr Mallatratt adds ‘deliberate environmental anachronisms’ so claimed the Times review in 1989, and so it seems, much to the mystical improvement of the production. Set in a Victorian theatre, yet at no particular, specified time, modern touches (such as electric torches and sound effects) are used, allowing the audience to become uneasy with the setting and allowing the actors to spread their story in a setting that cannot be entirely tied down to anything specific within the mind.
Form and production aims/ Sensitivity to style – Apparently, the original aim in performing ‘The Woman in Black’ with only two authors was to save money, and while a magnificent job has been done to use minimal output to produce such a thriller, one cannot help to wonder how a big budget production may handle this play. Mallatrat himself admits that ‘there are scenes he would have loved to have included but simply couldn’t,’ but I feel the actors have taken on board the necessity to make this appear a ‘classic ghost story’ and have taken the necessary steps to provide the exuberant and expressive performances within the stark setting that are required.
Part 6 – Conclusion and Bibliography – The Woman in Black is undoubtedly a very tense and exciting script reaped from a ‘classic style’ horror tale in the vein of Henry James, and requires two excellent actors to take on the roles, engage an entire audience with their characters internal struggles, and essentially build up a horrific tale and ghostly presence. In my opinion, Miller and Rycroft both performed excellently using a wide variety of styles, stage devices and a mixture of expression and clever use of scenery, stage play and setting to grip the audience into what is a very compelling tale. Of course, with a story so moreish, it could be claimed that their jobs were easier than those of someone acting out a more complex and ‘slow’ narrative, but the fact they were able to mould their acting techniques to fit the changing of characters, lack of physical prop stimulus and slightly eclectic timeframe of the events taking place, shows the presence of great skill.
I am only interested to see how the next two actors can deal with the roles!
- http://www.cix.co.uk/~shutters/reviews/00191.htm - Review of former actors
- http://www.londontheatre.co.uk/londontheatre/reviews/womaninblack.htm - Reviews of The Woman in Black performed by other actors
- http://www.thewomaninblack.com/pdf/wib_pack.pdf - Interview with Susan Hill describing her reaction to the on stage version
- Irving Wardled, The Times, January 1989
- Susan Hill - The Woman in Black (Vintage: 1998)
- http://www.susan-hill.com/pages/books/the_books/the_woman_in_black.htm - Interview with Susan Hill