The Woman in Black arrives in Grand Opera House Belfast from 13-18 May 2024 as part of its UK Tour. We spoke* with the acclaimed author of the original novel, Dame Susan Hill, to find out all about how she came up with the spooky story of The Woman in Black and what it’s like seeing your work told on stage.
The Woman in Black ran for an incredible 33 years in the West End, and is now touring the UK again. Did you anticipate the show would have such a long life when it first opened?
Oh no, we thought it would run for six weeks! It opened in Scarborough in 1988, and it started because they had a pantomime on in the theatre and Alan Ayckbourn who was the Artistic Director wanted to have something to put into the studio theatre alongside the pantomime. Stephen Mallatratt went on holiday and at the airport he picked up The Woman in Black. He was then lying on a beach in Greece and thought he could make this work on the stage. When he wrote to me asking if he could adapt it I thought it was mad but it’s a truly remarkable piece of theatre.
Were you nervous about handing over your story to a new team when you were originally approached about adapting the novel to the stage?
Not at all! The play is very true to the book and yet simultaneously very different by nature of being a piece of theatre. It works brilliantly in theatrical terms and it is still my book, but it is also not – and that is exciting.
What was it like the first time you saw your characters appearing in the flesh on stage?
The Woman in Black herself very much existed in my mind, I knew what she felt like, so it is very peculiar to feel her presence in a theatre. They two gentlemen are such brilliantly developed characters and utilised so well by Stephen’s writing for the stage that they become quite different. I’m always interested to see new actors taking it over, because although it is the same text, every pair of actors bring something different to it, it really does change!
Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation utilises some very traditional theatrical techniques in very innovative ways. Does the play capture the atmosphere of EelMarsh House the way you envisioned it?
I think the great thing about the show is that it really does use the theatre, the stage, and it makes the audience work. Stephen Mallatratt’s writing makes you use your imagination, and that’s the brilliance of it and also what makes some elements all the more scary!
Where did your original idea for The Woman in Black come from?
I have always loved reading ghost stories but had realised that in recent years not a lot had been written. People were writing horror, but horror is different to me. You can have a horror story that doesn’t have a ghost, whereas a ghost story could be horror but also could be unnerving in a different way or even heartbreaking.
I ended up making a list of the key elements I thought a good ghost story should have and worked from that. I thought it should have atmosphere, lots of atmosphere, an isolated location which in itself is unnerving, and I was absolutely sure that the ghost needed a reason to be there. I wasn’t sure at first whether that would be because they wanted revenge, or they needed to communicate with the living world but I knew they had to have motivation.
The Woman in Black, she came to me straight away – I wanted her to be a woman and of her period. Then various things that I had found alarming as a child came back into my mind and I wanted to incorporate themincluding the image of the dusty, cobweb covered nursery which I always think has elements of Miss Havisham in it.
Why do you think we as readers or audience members enjoy being scared?
It’s a funny thing isn’t it? It’s a very primitive instinct, to be frightened. However, the joy of a ghost story is that it is just practice really, we are being frightened delightfully. Whilst we may jump and scream in the theatre, we know that we are safe and can allow ourselves to be scared which I think is essential! Perhaps it is our way of learning to manage our fears?
How does it make you feel when you hear the audience reactions to The Woman in Black?
I’ve seen it so many times and yet sometimes it even makes me jump! I like to watch the show from is from the wings and be able to see the audience from that angle. It’s especially good when you have school parties in who aren’t expecting to be frightened but then as it begins to get tense suddenly you see the body language of the whole audience shift. Sometimes people react really strongly and shout things out almost involuntarily as they’re so involved in the action on stage!
Do you believe in ghosts?
I think I do, in a sense. I’ve never seen one (as far as I know!), but enough people I know have been in a place which emanates a sense of evil and have felt the urge to immediately get away from it. Also, you always hear of dogs having that sense of something not being right, being spooked, and why would an animal make that up?
For lots of young people, coming to see The Woman in Black will be their first experience of live theatre. What do you advise they look out for?
Go into the theatre with an open mind and try to immerse yourself in the show. Allow yourself to imagine everything the show invites you to!
What do you think it is about theatre that makes it such a wonderful storytelling platform, and do you have any other works of yours that you’d like to see adapted for the stage?
People love live theatre. There’s something special about it which you can’t get from Netflix or YouTube. The Woman in Black has a lot of young people in its audiences, many have whom have never been inside a theatre or to a play and it bowls them over. I hope, indeed I know, that it introduces many to a lifetime of theatre going which makes me and made Stephen Mallatratt very proud.
When my elder daughter went to the theatre for the first time, to see a David Wood children’s play, aged three, she watched intently for the first few minutes, then said, 'Mummy, they're REAL!' It's that, the flesh & blood immediacy that makes it so special. The fact that something may go wrong, or maybe take off into the best performance ever. Nothing else can give you that edge of excitement.
I'd love to see any other of the ghost stories on stage though they wouldn't all work. Someone very clever could make The Man In The Picture work, I think. If you can do The Woman in Black, with a pony and trap, a ghost, a dog, a mist shrouded graveyard and all the contents of the mysterious house, you can do anything!
The Woman in Black
Grand Opera House, Belfast
13-18 May 2024