Centuries past

Old cell block setting of The Woman in Black

The confined space of Kingston City Hall provided an eerie atmosphere for the play.
The confined space of Kingston City Hall provided an eerie atmosphere for the play.

In the basement of City Hall lies one of the first police cell blocks in Kingston, built in 1844 and first used in 1906.

The found space set the tone for Blue Canoe Productions’ The Woman in Black with its creaky doors, red carpet and an atmosphere of centuries past.

The production, directed by Devon Dafoe and written by Stephen Mallatratt, is based on the book by Susan Hill.

“A lawyer hires an actor to tutor him in recounting to family and friends a story that has long troubled him, concerning events that transpired when he attended the funeral of an elderly recluse,” the play’s pamphlet reads. “There he caught sight of the woman in black.”

It’s reminiscent of Wuthering Heights in love and bad luck, grudges and vengeance, eerie moors and impenetrable fog and of course, haunting ghosts.

One crucial difference is that the murderous ghost of Jennett Humphrey never finds eternal rest in The Woman in Black, whereas Heathcliff and Cathy live happily ever after, in a way, in Wuthering Heights.

The tiny cell block was transformed into a stage with solid dark wood furniture, old black-and-white photographs, gas lamps, old papers and an inkstand. Specifically unnerving were the six doors that opened into the cell block.

It’s in the nature of theatre production to transport the audience to a time and place with only the stage, the actors, props, costumes and music, but The Woman in Black went beyond that.

The tiny space of the cell block, with the audience and the actors crowded in, magically contained the distant haunting sceneries of an Edwardian-era British village and the ill-fated Eel Marsh House.

At the same time, the confined space heightened the intensity of the performance. The characters’ every emotion — from fear and panic, to despair and the rare moment of normalcy — pierced the audience.

The actors themselves gave an excellent performance, especially in their deft maneuvering of their shared domain and the extra pressure and excitement from the closeness of the audience.

They made the beautiful words of Mallatratt come to life. The music score for the performance was the epitome of subtle but effective was. The most consistent of the unpleasant pitches was a deep metallic drum.

In the few moments without the music, there was suddenly less tension and it became easier to breathe. The audience was truly taken back in time and place as they were thrown in the midst of the unfolding story. The pure emotions, the smell of burning matchsticks and candles and the threats of the phantasmal world were all very real.

In all these ways, The Woman in Black was a perfect way to warm up to Halloween. It will undoubtedly be a unique and memorable experience for those who decide to see it, easily frightened or not.

The Woman in Black will be playing from Oct. 24 - Nov. 2. Tickets are $12 with limited seating.

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