Director’s Note: The Woman in Black

Oct 01, 2009

During our first day of rehearsal for The Woman in Black, Bradley Moss mentioned that he was looking back at plays done at Theatre Network in the 80’s, and noticed that there had been a lot more funding allocated to commissioning playwrights to write for much larger casts – six to eight characters seemed to be the norm. How times have changed.
It seems Robin Herford was having quite the opposite experience in 1987, when he was the Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, home of playwright, director and actor Alan Ayckbourn and his company. Ayckbourn was at the National Theatre in London on a sabbatical, so Herford was keeping the home fires burning at the theatre in Scarborough. He had a very small budget for the final production of the season running during Christmas, and could only hire four actors – max.
He approached Stephen Mallatratt to write a ghost story. Mallatratt thought he might adapt Susan Hill’s novel, The Woman in Black. When Herford read the book, he was anxious because there were multiple characters, but Mallatratt delivered a two-hander that stayed within budget and complemented Hill’s premise.
The production did very well, and went on to London’s Fortune Theatre where it still plays today. Herford was surprised that his ‘cut price stocking-filler from Scarborough would still be running in the West End’, but realized having it written the way it was for economic reasons, ended up being the reason it was so captivating and eventually so successful. Its simplicity allowed the actors to engage the audience’s imagination – changing characters or location simply by changing a coat or picking up a prop – and delving into believable characterizations the audience completely accepted. Sound and lights became the set, informing time, place and mood. It was a challenging show for designers, in facilitating ways to help things appear and disappear.
So much could be done for so little, with imagination from all the creative team – just like what happens for so little at Theatre Network, season after season.
But as always, the key to inspiration comes from the playwright, and Mallatratt had that in spades when he wrote The Woman in Black.
Stephen Mallatratt was born June 15, 1947. He came from a lower class background in North London, and after training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, caught the attention of Alan Ayckbourn. He originated many roles in Ayckbourn plays, and wrote what Ayckbourn calls a ‘near perfect play’ entitled An Englishman’s Home. He moved on to the Bristol Old Vic and worked in the company of actors who eventually took the theatre over, including Daniel Day Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite.
He wrote Comic Cuts for this talented ensemble – about a bingo hall swindling the Arts Council for funding. It was revived at the West End a decade or so later with the title of an Arts Council report: The Glory of the Garden, however, it was no longer as humorous. The cuts described in the play were now a reality – a reality many Alberta theatres experienced in the 90’s and beyond.
Mallatratt enjoyed great success in the theatre. He was diagnosed with a severe form of leukemia early in 2004, and died in November of that year. I am delighted that he wrote a two-hander that theatres all over the world have been able to afford to produce, and that audiences can truly enjoy. When money is tight, artists hunker down and find a way to tell a great story – and in Mallatratt’s case – a fabulously scary one. Audiences love to be frightened.
Funding goes to regional theatres in this country so they can produce big cast plays, while smaller theatres look to the likes of Stephen Mallatratt to help them produce a full season of two or three–handers in the hopes they can splurge once in awhile and do – Scary Concept, Batman! – a show with maybe six actors?
My director’s notes will not culminate in a rage about funding allocation – I just wanted to let you know that I believe the smaller theatres should be extremely proud. Since we have so little to spend, we have to find super creative ways to spur our audience’s imagination. I love that challenge because it scares the shite out of me in having to deliver.
And I so love the delivery of playwrights like Stephen Mallatratt.
Marianne Copithorne