Having read Susan Hill’s novel ‘The Woman in Black’ as well as studied Stephen Mallatratts adaptation for the stage, how effective is the ghost story genre on stage?
“You must know at least one ghost story, stepfather, everyone knows one…..”
And he was right Thousands ands, even millions of ghost stories have been written over the years. How many were successful? How many, sent a chill down your spine? A good ghost story usually contains many conventions and similarities. I will discuss some of these and see how they fit into ‘The Woman in Black’ and other such ghost stories. I will also be discussing how the stage adaptation of ‘The Woman in Black’ was successful within the ghost story genre and what was used on stage to help with the originality and frightening aspect of the play.
Without this ghost story convention the storylines would never progress. The main character or protagonist is always very curious. They always go and investigate what a normal person wouldn’t. In the ‘signal man’ by Charles Dickens the main character insists on returning to the desolate train station.
“But I expressly intend to make you another visit”
In the ‘Woman in Black’ by Susan hill the author keeps bringing the character away from the climax and into the anti- climax. This relieves tension and for a while gives a false sense of security. This happens in many ghost stories and is a very common convention. This is also seen in the stage adaptation of ‘The Woman in Black’ Very often they bring you out of the play because the whole play is set as a play within the play. This was rather annoying but was very effective in breaking the tension in the auditorium.
‘Ghost’ stories. Every ghost story has to have a ghost! The ghosts though are often very confusing. You have to look outside the box to understand what the ghost is all about. They can sometime be invisible but one can sense and feel it. In other circumstances then can appear as if they are living like in the recent film ‘The sixth sense’ You are only revealed to the fact that the main character is a ghost towards the end. The ghost shouldn’t be shown in full view of the audience though. It should be hidden and appear suddenly to give an element of surprise and to stun the audience. Clothes or props may half hide the ghost in some cases. This gives a good element of mystery. In ‘The Woman in Black’ the ghost is almost completely hidden by her long flowing clothes and veil. This was very frightening because it made you feel very insecure.
Without these next conventions the atmosphere and feeling wouldn’t be the same within the ghost story. In every book and story the setting is vital. It sets the scene and helps the reader become involved in the book. In ghost stories the convention is to have a desolate, isolated location. This means the characters are away from civilisation so miles away from safety. We see this in ‘The Woman in Black’ Eel Marsh house is very isolated and because of the tide is , in a way cut of from the rest of the world,
“And we seemed to be driving towards the very edge of the world”
We also see it in ‘The Signal Man’ the station, is again away from everything and very isolated,
“This was a lonesome place to occupy (I said)”
If we can emphasize with the setting we are more likely to get involved with the events of the story.
‘The Woman in Black’ is a very complexed, thrilling and figurative novel and play. I will now focus on how the production is effective as a ghost story genre. I saw the play at the ‘Fortune Theatre’ directed by Robin Hereford.
The first aspect I think the director used was lighting. I thought lighting was a very prominent and effective part of the play. Without the lighting, I personally think the play wouldn’t be as exhilarating as a ‘scary’ ghost story.
One of the ways he used the lighting was to spotlight the characters. This accentuates isolation. Not only people are spotlighted items such as the door were very often but into the light. This shows us it is important and is, at that time in the play to focus on the door.
There was a lack of props in this play. To compensate this the director uses very effective lighting to set the scene and tell the audience what is happening. This is used in the layers office in the busy streets of London. A dull yellow light shines on the stage. This symbolised the thick, chocking smog that lay on the city at that time.
“Fog was outdoors, hanging over the river, creeping in and out of alleyways and passages.”
At night a faint blue light was shone which showed the moon. These things are all making the stage adaptation effective because it is making the play real for the audience.
Another great decision by the director was using projected images on a screen on the stage. Not only was this a good way to solve the problem of lack of props it was also very frightening. It was used in the graveyard when a cross was shown. It shows quickly and efficiently that we are now in a church. Eel Marsh house was also projected onto the screen. This was very spooky because it was dark and the house looked very creepy and daunting. As I have already discussed a desolate, isolated house is a big convention in the ghost story genre as we see in other such stories such as the signalman.
Lighting was also used to distinguish the play within a play. When the actors are rehearsing and talking to each other the lights are bright and claming. When we return into the story the lights are dimmed.
I will now talk about the second thing, which is used to make the stage adaptation effective as the ghost story genre. Props and clothing. Props and clothing usually play a major role in most plays. In the ‘Woman in Black’ the audience have to use their imagination more because there are very few props. In a way this brings the audience further into the play because they are thinking about it and imagining it.
As the plot deepens, Kipps clothing deteriorates becoming more grubby and torn towards the end. The audience can interpret this as a sign that Kipps is getting weaker and sadder, almost becoming and acting in a liminal sense.
The props in this adaptation are a wicker box, a few chairs and we very simple. This gives the sense of an amateur performance contributing to the feeling that the actor who plays nearly all of the roles is not really very good at acting! I think simple props help the stage adaptation to be successful because it doesn’t detract from the actors or form what is going on, on stage. Another thing I noticed about the props were that some were covered. This gave a sense of mystery and wonder.
I thought in ‘The Woman in Black’ the staging was done very well. ON a few occasions the auditorium was used. Not only was this unexpected it also involved the audience and gave us the feeling we went actually meant to be there which accentuates the play within a play concept. Another staging aspect in this play was the use of a transparent screen. When needed it created a whole other world and view to the stage. It is a very simple idea but works perfectly to stun and scare the audience. It was used for the nursery and graveyard. It was also a good way to move and change props and setting without everybody in the audience noticing or seeing. The screen and use of auditorium creates a very good atmosphere, which helps to make the play a success in the ghost story genre.
Again due to the lack of props sound was used to compensate for this. It is used to create tension and suspense for instance when Kipps grows closer towards the rocking chair it grows louder. I thought one of the most effective uses of sound was when we heard loud screams. Because of the actual loudness and unexpectedness of it, it really scared the audience. Which is very hard to achieve on stage.
The noises are also used as a clichï¿½. Kipps keeps going to see what is making the noise, as I said earlier who would? The director makes use of the protagonist’s curiosity.
Along with lighting sound is used to help set the scene. For example when on the train or railway station they have the appropriate sound effects.
The final thing that I thought helped to make this play a success in the ghost story genre was special effects. As we know from the ghost story conventions I discussed bad weather is common in ghost stories. Eel Marsh house is known for it’s sudden mists and fogs. Special effects are used to portray this. They used an actual smoky substance to show the fog. This involved the audience in the play and really made us think we were there!
Another special effect the director used was to enable the rocking chair to rock so much and so violently all on its own. Every ghost story has an element of supernatural and in “The Woman in Black’ this is one of them. It was so scary because it was so unbelievable yet you could see it happening. Right there in front of you.
Overall all of these points and many more made the play a ‘Woman in Black’ directed by Robin Hereford so effective as a ghost story.
I thought the play was done very well. It must have been hard to make this scary without the use of cameras and computers. In the play I don’t think we should be taken out of the play (the play within a play) so much. It made the beginning of the play quite slow to progress.