Parco in association with PW Productions present
the Japanese language version of
The Woman in Black
Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt
Japanese translation by Yoko Kawamoto
From the book by Susan Hill
Directed by Robin Herford
9 – 13 September, 2008
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
My reasons for wanting to attend this Japanese production of The Woman in Black, one of the West End’s longest running shows (19 years and counting), when I have already seen the play twice during the course of its lengthily run, were twofold. First of all, I believe this play, or should I say this particular production of this play, as directed by Robin Herford, who has also directed productions of it in Japan and America to be one of London’s finest when it comes to suspense and spine-tingling chills. Secondly, I was curious as to how the two Japanese actors starring in this five performance version, Haruhiko Saito and Takaya Kamikawa would handle their portrayals of the two, very English male characters of the story, Kipps, (Kamikawa) the hapless victim of the horrific haunting the play details, and older actor Saito, who skilfully portrays all of the other men, from clerks to land-owners whom Kipps encounters during the telling of his eerie tale.
At the outset of the play, we meet the ‘real’ Kipps, initially played by Haruhiko Saito as the traumatised victim of past paranormal experiences of the nastiest kind, who can’t elude their nightmarish memories. In an attempt to cleanse his consciousness of them, he has written them down, all five hundred pages of them. It would take, Kamikawa, as a young actor he has hired to assist his re-enactment of them, tells him, five hours to perform them as is. In light of this, Kamikawa, in assisting with the editing and rehearsal of Kipp’s script, decides the performance would be most effective if he was to play Kipp, as he was at the time these traumatic events took place. The real Kipp’s job, it seems, is to play everyone else.
It would be relatively easy to interpret this play as one of the most misogynist ever, were it not for the cloying sentiments that Kamikawa, as Kipps intermittently aims at his (absent) fiancé Stella. For every other woman mentioned in the play is either balmy, from spending too much time alone, or mad with revenge, like the ghost of Jennet, a.k.a. The Woman in Black. As the story unfolds and rehearsals progress, we learn that as a young lawyer, Kipps was given the assignment to travel to a remote corner of England, to a house named Eel Marsh, to go through the papers of the recently deceased Mrs. Alice Drablow, the wealthy dowager who lived there alone for many years. The house is singularly situated, literally, for it stands on a bank of sand with only a slim causeway linking it to the mainland which, disappears completely with each incoming tide.
Subtitles on the right-hand balcony tended to distract from the performance somewhat, but, as I cannot understand Japanese, I had no choice but to glance at them with some frequency, if only to refresh my memory. That’s not to say that the acting wasn’t superlative – it was. But the corkscrew twists in Hill’s novel require intent viewing, particularly on the part of those who haven’t read her tome. The script is very well written, and one assumes that the adaptation has drawn heavily on the author’s language. For a play that is as melodramatic and potentially frightening as this one, these actors handled their roles with humour whenever possible, though it is understood that once the story’s psychological trapdoors have been thrown open, it would be relatively impossible not to slip through some of them, particularly in the dark. In act two, piercing screams from the ghostly tormentor caused shudders in some audience members, and women were seen to be sitting closer to their partners than they had been in act one.
Many of the British audience members seemed to be enjoying the play without the need for subtitles, but yours truly was glad of them, though the acting was finely tuned enough so that you could basically watch the performance and come to grips with what was happening without them. Bowler hats, long woollen overcoats and exclamations of surprise and delight at the ‘new’ invention of recorded sound helped to date the story, while expressive phrases in moments of anger or delight which, tended to be a bit more grandiose than contemporary speech further enabled the allusions of time and place as well. This is a play that requires top acting to hold its audience, and these actors were definitely up to the challenges presented by having little more than a wicker trunk, a chair and a stool as props. Scenes in which the actors interacted with a dog that wasn’t there, very convincingly enacted as if she was charmingly reminded one of how the fine art of pretending, when acted to this degree, has the power to stimulate the imagination.
Lighting by Kevin Sleep made much more of seemingly ordinary shadows than the everyday readily allows for, and the Designs of Michael Holt reach their terrifying, surprisingly realistic crescendo during pivotal scenes when Kamikawa, as Kipps decides to investigate the things that go bump in the night, in the wee hours at Mrs. Drablow’s creaking mansion, in the hope of quelling, rather than fuelling his fear.
In a production such as this, featuring two actors, a deceptively sparse set, only as much sound design as is integral and carefully placed lighting, striking just the right balance between the real and the supernatural, each participant’s input is of the utmost importance. Rather than being a star vehicle, it becomes one in which its actors, designers and, director can really shine. This Japanese version of The Woman in Black should only serve to add to this production’s legend, as it is an experience which will lodge itself in the memory, long after the last embers of its autumn fire have dwindled.
The Fortune Theatre
Box Office 0870 060 6626
September 9, 10, 11, 12 at 8pm
September 13 at 4pm
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