Woman in Black

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Director and actor Robin Herford explains why hit play Woman in Black has haunted so many, writes Ysabelle Cheung

Outside the Fortune Theatre in London, a young couple are arguing after watching the thriller Woman in Black, a play that’s been running in the West End for more than 20 years. They're both  visibly distressed – and not surprisingly, after the emotional rollercoaster they've she’s just experienced over the past few hours.

Strangely enough, though, they’re not fighting over the idea of the supernatural or the reality of ghosts, but over the colour of the dog in the play. This isn't an uncommon incident, according to the play's original director Robin Herford, because the critter, like many other characters in the stage show, is completely imaginary. "Most people argue about the dog," he says, laughing. "It's fun. The audience really has to use their imagination to be scared."

Herford also plays a main character in the Hong Kong touring production. But don't expect a traditional ghost story. “The main character doesn’t believe in ghosts. The audience comes in and they’re expecting to be scared – and then the first scene completely upturns their expectations because it’s just a man shuffling in and all the lights suddenly come on.” Adapted from a novel by Susan Hill (and translated for film last year, starring Daniel Radcliffe), the play first premiered in London in 1989 and has been chilling audiences all over the world since. The story employs an unusual frame narrative: at the beginning, an old man, Arthur Kipps, attempts to retell a ghost story that’s been haunting him, through the medium of a play. He employs a young actor to help him act this out, but as the story progresses and the pace quickens, the line between rehearsal and reality blurs.

“It’s a terrific story,” says Herford. “It’s almost like a Greek tragedy, essentially about a woman who had a child and lost him, and now she haunts her victims.” The titular woman in black is a supernatural shadow that flits about, a haunting presence despite the fact that her stage time is limited. Most of the women he selects, mentions Herford, are dancers because of the physicality of the role – save for a bloodcurdling scream, the woman in black doesn’t deliver a single line. The play’s success in the horror genre relies on the simplest effects: an inexplicably moving rocking chair, a trick of the light, things that go bump in the night.

“Sometimes the audience will actually be laughing because it’s a kind of nervous release as well," Herford says. "It’s actually a great play for students because they can scream too and that’s fun. And for first dates because the couple can cling on to each other!”

Screams aside, at heart the play is a true hallmark of self-referential theatre, relying solely on the narrative of storytelling to captivate audiences. It also carries with it a strong history of stage tradition, having changed casts dozens of times – and it’s also the second-longest running non-musical play on the West End at the moment. Herford reveals that putting on the play is not without its hauntings either. “If this were a real story, I would not have touched it,” says Herford. “You know, every theatre in the world has its own strange ghosts – there’s so much emotion, love, rage and tragedy. And it’s all absorbed into this tiny space. There have been some dark corners in our theatre where our actors have claimed to have seen things.”

There has yet to be a reported ghostly sighting at the Lyric Theatre in Hong Kong, where the play is to be held this December, but you never know. “Just go and see it,” says Herford. “And go with an open mind.” And once you recover, do come back and tell us what colour the dog was…

Woman in Black HKAPA, Dec 3-8. Tickets: $265-$795; hkticketing.com.

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