>THE WOMAN IN BLACK by Chameleon Productions

>reviewed by adele tan

>date: 19 jun 2000
>time: 7:30pm
>venue: minds idea edc
>rating: **1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Horror and suspense are always difficult elements to recreate in a theatrical setting. Few scripts, actors and directors of this genre have managed to leave indelible marks on our imagination, anxieties and fears, without resorting to blood, gore and other scream-flick accoutrements. In WOMAN IN BLACK (WIB), horror and suspense are fleetingly evoked and dissipate as abruptly as they come.

WIB is built around the archetypal vengeful female ghost. The story has it that Arthur Kipps (played by Ng Tze Wei, Frankie), a solicitor, is sent to Malaysia to settle the estate of the late elderly Mrs. Drablow early in his career. Whilst he is there he encounters a deathly spectre, the Woman in Black and uncovers the mystery behind her hauntings and killings, which are carried out to avenge her son's death. A ghastly pattern soon emerges and whomever chances upon a sighting of the ghost will soon find that a child in his surroundings is murdered. Years later, he sees the ghost again and the tragic death of his wife and child quickly ensues.

The most interesting gambit of this macabre tale lies in its self-referential dramatic structure of a play within a play. WIB commences with Kipps, who in his bid to exorcise the event weighing heavily in his memory and to relate it to his relatives, engages a professional theatre actor (played by Ashraf Safdar) to help him re-enact the tragedy. The roles are reversed in the re-enactment as the actor plays 'Kipps' whilst Kipps plays a variety of characters related to the preceding events and thereby moves through all the motions once more. (One has to swiftly suspend our disbelief at how Kipps is rapidly coached by the actor to drop his self-consciousness and transform into a seasoned thespian). The structure is also supported by the twist at the end of the story where it is revealed that the actor actually SAW the ghost in the supposed artificial re-enactment. The effect is a good one as it playfully arouses some disconcerting confusion to the audience's consciousness of the actual play and the "played out" story within the play. WIB points to its own schizophrenic theatrical artifice seemingly in order to heighten the chilling horror of any self-respecting ghost story.

>>'Chameleon Productions can make better use of its youthful potential.'

However, the sporadic bits of cleverness of the original script did little to lift the present play above the ordinary. Although Mallatratt's script was adapted by Ng to adopt a local flavour, re-setting the play to colonial surroundings, relatively little risk was taken in re-interpreting the play. Therefore, premises of the original play are not questioned. For instance, the female ghost remains an enigma, her psyche little understood and left unexplored. Are there larger connective issues behind her femaleness, thwarted fertility/nurturance and her hauntings? What are the relationships like between the men, the women and between the men and women? Having concentrated on telling the story straight, the play missed out on gaining depth. Perhaps the biggest pitfall of the play lies in the fact that it feels like a schoolhouse production and therefore could never convey the full thrust of an atmospheric spine-chiller. (I am, however, not taking issue with its budget or production values).

The idea of using a desolate, run-down school compound is an apt one and so is the concept of moving the audience around performance sites that corresponds to the journey motif; from the classroom to the car park to the assembly hall. The designers have also taken the sensory approach, bringing in baby powder smells, candle lighting and visual tricks. Yet, they have also made the mistake of relying on filmic elements of the generic horror movie, like a dark, sonorous soundtrack which overpowers the delicate mood and does not work so well when transplanted onto the stage. There are also the standard screams, nervous shrills and loud thrashings. The effects are intended to creep you out but the results are rather comic as if the play is a parody of horror flicks, which it is not.

The acting is also largely uneven and uninspired. Lines were done in crisp accents but delivered as if the actors were in an elocution contest. Ng and Safdar lacked mutual chemistry and their contrast jar rather than compliment each other, as if they were on opposite poles of the performance continuum. Ng is overly subtle to the point of monotony and Safdar is overly effusive in method acting to the point of forgetting subtlety (even if his character requires him to be slightly affected and annoying). Their youth is perhaps also their handicap for they could not convey the gravity and weariness of worn-out men but sometimes come across as frightened schoolboys. I was not too convinced that the two were supposedly older men.

I really applaud the heart and spirit that went behind this production. The cause is good and one is sorely tempted to be more forgiving and generous. Yet, a review is a critical opinion of a work despite its mitigating circumstances. Chameleon Productions can make better use of its youthful potential, moving beyond the traditional and creating more energetic and quirky pieces of work rather muck around in dusty, moss-covered hauntings.