Above – John Waters. Photo – Justin Nicholas

Some of the mythologised bad luck surrounding Macbeth stems from its popularity and a perceived assurance of a boost to a theatre’s coffers by staging it – the overhang of course being that the company is seemingly in financial trouble and therefore doomed. Box office gold is elusive, and failure, like success, is an alchemy only truly understood once the Sun(has)set!

There’s often a wealth of information about a production in the programme notes and when a show has enjoyed as much success as The Woman in Black, it’s fascinating to get some retrospective analysis from the original creatives. While in residency at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, the shows Director Robin Herford sought an economical production to end his season. With a ghost story in mind, playwright Stephen Mallatratt was commissioned and Susan Hill’s 1983 gothic novel, The Woman in Black, was put forward by the writer for adaptation. Despite seeing real potential in Hill’s evocative story, Herford also saw the number of characters and therefore the number actors required to play them as a drawback to his cost-effective mission. Unbothered, Stephen Mallatratt proceeded and subsequently delivered a two-handed play within a play. Setting the work within a theatre and using acting and rehearsal as the vehicle for telling the story was a master stroke by Mallatratt that not only superbly delivered on the original brief but enabled all measure of theatrical possibility.

There's nothing particularly groundbreaking or remarkable about a ghostly tale centred on an old mansion, a recently deceased occupant, some nasty historic events and a small community fearful of spectre visitation, but with the incredibly clever theatrical devises and conventions this production employs, a stock standard ‘penny dreadful’ has been elevated to something far more compelling. The sleight of hand in narratively introducing the innovation of recorded sound to the story subsequently heightens our focus and ensures our response to the chilling soundscape is literally amplified. An actor playing an actor teaching another actor playing a lay person to play a multitude of roles draws us further into believability as we watch him improve. A little like being privy to the machinations of a magic trick yet remaining exhilarated by the deception, this is marvellous old-fashioned theatricality that forces us to suspend our disbelief and buy in to the ever-mounting tension.

Despite its immensely humble beginnings, and after a few initial theatre shuffles, The Woman in Black ran at London’s Fortune Theatre for a staggering 33 years and for any student of theatre, this show should be attended like a compulsory course lecture.

Given its staying power and winning formula, there’s real commercial logic in staging shows like The Woman in Black, particularly when casting has been so sensibly considered. Pairing two of Australia’s finest actors and staging the Melbourne dates in the authentically atmospheric Athenaeum Theatre brings forward a genuine sense of occasion.

Daniel MacPherson has had an impressive and varied career in Australia and in the UK and while we’re more used to seeing him on the small screen, often as host and heartthrob, it’s fantastic to see him in the theatre because he is a genuinely skilled stage actor. Impeccable timing, extraordinarily good accent work and so incredibly engaging, MacPherson is as natural on stage as he is commanding all while performing in absolute harmonious parity with his legendary co-star.  

John Waters returns to the role of Arthur Kipps after having previously played him in an Australia tour of the show in 2006. While the role is of course the narratives protagonist, the conventions set up in the piece means ‘Arthur’ is predominantly played by ‘The Actor’ while Arthur himself portrays all of the other characters that feature within the story. John Waters is of course an incredible performer supported as he is by decades of extraordinary work on our stages and screens. It’s an utter pleasure to watch an actor of this calibre so effortlessly and convincingly transition from one character and accent to the other. This is a play that begins with a focus on the process of acting and in the hands of these two outstanding performers, the layering of the narrative against the work they are actually doing, for real, is utterly joyful.

The woman wearing black is of course omnipresent throughout and she’s more than capable of lifting you from your seat in fear but her sad tale is bizarrely the least exhilarating component of this production. If you can't get to a show on Shaftsbury Avenue this year, you’ve an unbelievably good opportunity to replicate if not surpass the experience entirely. Book a lovely restaurant, dress yourself up, take your seats in the Athenaeum and prepare to be swept up in an evening of unbelievably enjoyable old style theatre storytelling and magic.

Event details

PW Productions, Woodward Productions and Neil Gooding Productions present
The Woman in Black
by Stephen Mallatratt

Director Robin Herford

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Dates: until 6 July 2024
Tickets: from $55.00
Bookings: www.thewomaninblack.com.au

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