An isolated building on a windswept causeway on the bleakest edge of the English coast provides the backdrop to what promises to be one of Dubai’s most memorable stage adaptations this year. Woman In Black, based on the horror novel by Susan Hill, is the long-running West End stage show (at 20 unbroken years, it’s second only to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in terms of length of run). Over that time it’s been performed in more than 40 countries and been translated into more than 30 languages, meaning that it carries with it a household-name status and reputation that only very few productions can boast. Woman In Black, however, also has another reputation rather chillingly fitting to the play’s mood and one that it is hoped will not be repeated in Dubai. It is said that London’s Fortune Theatre, where the show has run since 1989, is haunted by, you guessed it, a woman in black.
It would be a stretch to say that David Seddon, who, as we speak to him from his rehearsal room in London, is preparing to co-star in the show’s debut in Dubai, is haunted by the play, even if, as he puts it, his ‘life seems to be permeated by it at the moment’.
Seddon worked as an understudy on the show’s London production a few years ago. Surprisingly, however, he doesn’t believe this is an advantage. ‘Obviously the lines are rather more prevalent in my head,’ he concedes, ‘but to get rid of the muscle memory of certain moves and the way that things were done in the West End show has been a bit tricky at times.’
In the play, Seddon stars as a young actor who is hired by Arthur Kipps (played by James Clarkson), an older man with a dark history. Kipps wants to tell his story and decides it would be best for an actor to function as a cipher of sorts to do this for him. Moving between the present and past, the play retraces the story of Kipps as a young solicitor when he was sent to the desolate Eel Marsh House to take care of the estate of its owner, Alice Drablow. While clearing up her papers he delves deeper into her history and discovers the unsettling story of the woman in black – a shrouded figure who appears first at Mrs Drablow’s funeral and then at other key moments in the plot. The truth behind the identity of this mysterious woman and the ill-wind she seems to bring with her forms the centrepiece of the plot and provides the chills that have kept theatregoers flocking to the show in London and beyond.
‘What it does do is create this kind of atmosphere,’ notes current director John Payton, who has seen the show more than once over the years and has come away scared every time. ‘It’s so dark and quiet and eerie and then it just hits you with the shocks time and time again’, he says. Watching it is, he believes, the same kind of rollercoaster thrill that you get from seeing a great horror at the cinema: ‘You know how everybody loves to do that? They come out laughing at what they jumped at. It’s that kind of thing.’
What sets Woman In Black apart, however, says Payton, is that ‘it’s also genuinely a very moving story’. Clarkson agrees, drawing a comparison between a role he recently played at England’s esteemed Salisbury Playhouse in a new adaptation of JL Carr’s novel, A Month In The Country, another play dominated by just two actors, featuring an older man reminiscing and reprimanding himself on his life. In both plays, he explains, this ‘gives an extra dimension. Instead of the event simply happening,’ he continues, ‘you’ve also got the reactions of the older man to his younger self and all the mistakes he made then and that he now can’t ever retract. They’re all history, and he’s having to live with the consequences.’ Clarkson believes Woman in Black thus contains another kind of horror: that of looking at all the roads you didn’t take and all the paths you didn’t tread that you should have done. It’s the tragedy of a life lived, if not wrongly, then not as it could have been. ‘It makes it sound rather grim,’ Clarkson says with a laugh, ‘but it isn’t like that at all. It’s just a very exciting play.’ See for yourself when it hits the Madinat Theatre later this week – if you dare.
Dhs160, Madinat Theatre, January 28-February 6. See www.timeouttickets.com
A popular history
Woman In Black is just one of a long list of productions brought to Dubai by UK-based company Popular Productions. Their first outing was in 2006 with a short run of John Osbourne’s classic love-triangle drama, Look Back In Anger (starring none other than David Seddon, co-star of the current show Woman In Black). This slightly edgy start was followed by a run of popular shows (the clue is in the company’s name), including The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged), Educating Rita and Blues Brothers Unlimited. Then 2008 saw producers John Payton and Lucy Blakeman oversee a particularly eclectic line-up, starting with multi award-winning comedy drama Stones In His Pockets and rounding things off with a staging of Disney’s High School Musical (HSM) that went down so well it was brought back for a second run. It’s likely that this success is behind the team’s latest idea, to stage family favourite Annie in Dubai in April complete with, as HSM had, a largely local cast. ‘We’re quite open to anything so long as it’s good for an audience, it’s got a good story and people are going to enjoy it,’ Payton explains. That said, Woman In Black is, in some ways, a return to Popular’s roots. ‘We’re going back to the Madinat for the first time in a couple of years,’ Payton adds, ‘and that’s important, because the Madinat was the starting point for us and for mainstream drama, I think, in Dubai.’