BWW Interview: Richard Hope and Mark Hawkins Talk THE WOMAN IN BLACK
The second longest-running play in the West End is going into its 30th year at the Fortune Theatre, where we met the actors to discuss the show, fear and ghosts...
Why did you want to be an actor?
RH I didn't intend to be one, I'm a mistake. I have a law degree, actually. Why did I want to be an actor... I joined the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, I got in there and I enjoyed the energy of that, and the shared ethos of people working and creating from different backgrounds of the country.
I loved that ensemble feeling, and that's also why I've worked with lots of international companies, people from all over the world. I just like that energy. It's a different kind of family; I felt like I belonged. Law is not about right and wrong - which I thought it was - it's about degrees of honesty, so I was confused.
MH For me, I did a school play. I was very young, around eight or something. I can still remember it very vividly - it was the first time something made sense to me in terms of a subject. I got the bug quite early and I did various plays, then I eventually went to college. Again, it's something about the energy that you use and that you have in the rehearsal room. I've never encountered that in anything else.
RH And I was going to say, it's quite interesting in this show. It's very dependent on the energy between the two actors. If you don't get on then you don't get on. That's our main problem - you have to sort of have an energy and a shared moment and a shared vocabulary for what you're doing.
Did you both go to the theatre a lot when you were younger?
MH No, I don't come form a family of theatregoers. I'm from the Midlands, from Leicester - you have the Haymarket there, but we didn't have a great deal of theatre. We just didn't go as a family, so I didn't really start to go until I was in secondary school, on school trips and things like that.
RH No, because I had no intention of doing acting. I joined the National Youth Theatre as a bet. It didn't have anything to do with it. I didn't really feel like I had the talent, but then you meet all those people and you think "Oh, I have a chance here".
In your own words and with no spoilers, what's the show about?
MH It's about... hmm... it's a ghost story, and I think that's well known. It is a ghost story. And the play itself deals with things like loss and grief. What would you say? We keep using the word 'storytelling' a lot, and in many ways there are many stories told within this play, I think, and from different points of view. I think it's about someone having a need to tell something to a group of people.
RH It's a Gothic thriller. It's set in a misty place, a house in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fog and everything else... It's very atmospheric, and that's what we've tried to create through our storytelling.
We have to sort of invite the audience in to create this world. It works with where you are in your imagination and how far you're going to go before you're caught out. It's set in the 1950s, but the story takes place 60 years before that.
MH I used to think it was set in the Twenties, but it's not specific on purpose, actually, and the book is not specific too. It's certainly not now.
RH It has a history, so you're already into the realms of "It's been going on for a while".
The Woman in Black is the second longest-running play in the West End. Does joining it come with pressure?
MH Yes, I think, to a degree. I've seen this play over the years a few times, and you're aware it's been here for so long and many actors over those years have come in. There is a responsibility to do the best you can.
I remember my first experience of it, and I'd like to try to give other people who've never seen it before a similar experience. Yeah, I think there's a certain responsibility in taking something on that's been here for so long. But there's a freedom to it.
RH I'd never seen it. I knew nothing about it other than what he said, "It's been here for a while, do you want to do it?". And I thought "Well, I'll read the script" and it's a great story. The longevity is down to that storytelling from Susan Hill and the adaptation it got. The way it's been kept fresh is that the director is allowed with the two actors who come in to give their interpretation and bring whatever qualities they have to the room.
Fortunately, we go on okay, Mark and I. I go wrong, he helps me out. It's very, very tight like that as a piece. Then, having read it and decided you're gonna do it, you need to offer something else. I've come from a physical theatre and a storytelling background with Complicité, I wanted to bring that into it.
What's the main challenge you've encountered going into it?
MH It's wordy! I mean, there are just the two of us and there really isn't a great deal of time to breathe. We're completely reliant on each other. Once it starts, it starts and it goes, and there really isn't a great deal of time to think and have a moment.
RH There's no reflection. You can't go "Oh, I made a mistake there, let me go back", you can't. You need to go on.
MH And it is just the two of us, there's no one else there to help us, no larger company to rely on or anything like that.
RH It's that classic storytelling - in the Far East, there's that tradition of recounting a tale... We're doing that and performing it at the same time.
MH And I keep saying, it's more like reading a book... Or an audiobook. Things are being described to you and you, as an audience, need to fill in all the gaps. Which I think is also one of the reasons it's still on.
RH And there are funny moments too in our relationship!
MH Oh, yeah!
RH It's not just dry.
Do you find it hard to be the only two actors on stage?
RH I quite like it, to be honest. It is hard, yes, but that's the benefit of it. If you go off you... I have the tendency to lose my energy in a dressing room. Whereas if you're on and you have the whole evening on, it's like you're on a roller coaster. You cannot get off. You just have to complete the run.
MH Yeah, I agree. When you're in a play and you have a scene and you're off, sometimes you get nerves and things like that... They build when you're offstage. With this, it starts and you're there.
RH It's a privilege to do it like that.
MH And we build a relationship with the audience quite quickly because we never really leave them.
RH It's that classic thing of Peter Brooks' Empty Space, if you know that book, using nothing and coming on and creating. You have an empty mind and then you let us build from that. You have to leave all your baggage outside of the room, all the personal baggage.
Do you think it's harder to convey fear from a stage as opposed to film or television?
MH You know, in film you'd have music during the suspense moment, which helps so much. You can build tension through music, but there is no music in The Woman In Black. You'd have special effects and things too - the camera allows you to see what it wants. I don't know if harder is what it is, I think there's something about the fact that it's live and that something you'd always never experience on film or playing a game or whatever.
And that does so much to the audience - fear feeds off it. The audience is here, they're in the same room as we are. Anything that happens to us onstage is happening to them as well. And we're really not that far away.
RH Providing that the performance is truthful, I think this is a stronger medium. As you've said, the music can guide you through the emotional journey and with this, it's up to you as the audience to look where you want to look and to feel what you what to feel. We can push it and tell the tale but how you react to it is up to you. We have to work for it.
Do you believe in ghosts?
RH I do, yes. I'm up for ghosts, yeah. I've experienced poltergeists, I've had that in my life, and I've also experienced a lot of nutty people who were visited by ghosts.
I've worked with the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool and there were a lot of people there... mediums and that sort of thing... Also, when you visit old buildings, Mark can tell you about it.
MH I've never experienced anything supernatural, but I do believe in it. Buildings can take on experiences. I think you can walk into a room and if something has happened there you're gonna feel it.
Older buildings, particularly theatres, when they're empty, there's something about them. They remember or absorb emotions and things. I've never seen or experienced anything, I have experienced feelings though! Often it's your imagination, but when you walk into ruins and things like that... You go "There's something unpleasant about this space".
RH Dressing rooms are like that too. There's meant to be a ghost at the Haymarket. And that's quite spooky. People tell you that, and the Old Vic is meant to be haunted by ghosts too. You're aware of maybe old souls in the same space as you are. That's where I'd like to be. With them passing on a few tips... Tapping me on the shoulder...
MH You'd like to be a theatre ghost is what you're saying.
RH I don't know, I think I might come back and haunt somebody, yeah. I think I'd quite like that! And go "Ooohhhh!!!!"... Upsetting people I didn't like in life...
Richard, you were talking about a poltergeist experience...
RH Yeah, when I was younger with Matthew Manning. When he was really young he was attracting poltergeists. He has a definite energy, he didn't really know... it's people's energies that can affect the equilibrium in a room. He's now a really good healer.
Having actually witnessed it, it's actually quite spooky. Things appearing or moving, and you've got no idea why... And there's nobody there with a magnet or something - nobody knew what was happening. It was spooky. I've done plays where people do that just to put you off, too.
Why do you think The Woman in Black has been running for so long?
RH Good story. Basically, it's a good story and it grips audiences from the very start. It's a tale worth telling, that's what I think.
This year, 30th anniversary, it's an honour to do it. We want to build the audiences for this year, and it's a unique little theatre, the Fortune - it's got a history of its own anyway.
MH I don't think there are many plays in the West End that are like it in its simplicity, which is storytelling. I think that's why people like it - it's just a bit different from other shows that are out there. Sometimes people just what to come and listen to a story being told. It evokes childhood and sitting around a campfire and all that. And who doesn't like to be scared in some way!
RH It's such a good tale. And look at the people who've been involved in it! It's meaty parts, even if they might have been reluctant at the start. It's such a rewarding piece to do. We come off at the end of the show with a buzz just from sharing with each other. People appreciate storytelling.
What would you say to persuade someone to see it?
RH It's a short show. You can shut your eyes if you're that scared. But it's a good yarn set in a sort of John Buchan style, like The Thirty-Nine Steps, it's that area of period piece. So you can distance yourself from it as well.
It has its funny moments, and this production is done as if it's in a theatre. The film changed a lot of the story from the book and it doesn't make sense at times. Nobody actually questions the film, though... How odd.
MH It's a very faithful adaptation - the language is beautiful.
RH The script is more or less the book.
MH There's so much taken directly from the page, it's a joy to say it. It's so descriptive.
RH It's a period style, so it's quite tricky to learn sometimes because it's not colloquial...
MH It's so much more than fear. It's not all about that.
RH It's a theatrical experience on the basis of nothing. It requires you to imagine, so it empowers you as a personal individual to have a brain.
MH You have your own interpretation of it. That's also another reason to come and see it - everyone will have a unique experience. They will imagine their own Woman in Black, the settings, the places we talk about will all be different for everyone.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton