'Never apologise for enthusiasm' Woman in Black director Robin Herford on West End success and more

Theatre director Robin Herford commissioned the 25-year-running West End smash hit The Woman in Black and still to this day personally directs each recast.

18th December 2017
/ By James Collins

The Woman in Black play in London THEWOMANINBLACK

On top of managing a decades-old theatrical success like The Woman in Black, Robin has also directed Driving Miss Daisy, The Turn of the Screw and An Inspector Calls and a string of other plays as well as appearing as an actor in TV classics like Only Fools and Horses, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and Casualty.

Here he talks to Mandy News about how he carved a place for himself in the industry, how he puts together theatre shows and offers up advice to those wanting to work on – or around – the stage.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I trained as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic School in 1970, graduating in 1972. Quite soon after that, I went up to Alan Ayckbourn’s company in Scarborough and he encouraged me into directing. For a long time, I was an actor and director up there, though I did much more directing than acting. It’s been a dual career and it’s been great fun.

How was it you got into directing?
Alan Ayckbourn is always one for encouraging people to do more than one thing. He started as an actor and he was encouraged by Stephen Joseph to become a writer and, from there, to become a director. A lot of people in the company at the time were writers or designers as well as actors. I mentioned to him I had directed a little bit at university and he asked me if I would stay for the next season if he offered me a production. So I did. 

He was one of those wonderful influences that encourages you but gives you the space to do it— he’s never spent a single minute in my rehearsal room, although I must have directed 30 or 40 shows while he was in charge of the theatre and I was up there. He told me I could give him a ring if I got into trouble and that was great. As a result of that production, he asked me to become his associate director. He knew I still wanted to act, so he said I could direct some shows and act in others. 

Basically he directed 60 percent of the shows, I directed 40 percent. We cast the company together, we commissioned the new plays together, and I learned a bit about how a theatre company operates. It was great. It was hard work. It was a steep learning curve but a very enjoyable one.

How did that take you to being the artistic director at the theatre?
Alan was asked by Sir Peter Hall, who then ran the National Theatre, if he would go and run a company there for a couple of years. Alan avoids big conversations if he possibly can. We were walking down the platform at Kings Cross together, he was going right at one end and I was going left, and, just as we parted, he said “Oh, by the way, Peter’s asked me to run a company at the National for two years, so why don’t you run the company while I’m gone? Bye, see you”. And off he went. 

So I thought about that and it seemed a crazy opportunity to turn down, so I did it. It was quite a revelation, really. I don’t think I’m fully cut out to be an artistic director of a theatre, but there were bits of it I really enjoyed. I really enjoyed working with actors, I enjoyed putting a season together, I enjoyed commissioning new work. 

It was one of those new works that I commissioned that turned into The Woman in Black, so Alan was very instrumental in providing me with the opportunity to do that.

What drew you to The Woman in Black and made you see it as a possibility?
One of the things about running a small arts council-funded company is that I got some advice from the outgoing administrator, who said “Whatever you do, spend all your grant because if you don’t spend it, you won’t get it next year.” So I got to the end of my two years and I had the programme all mapped out, but I found a little bit of money left in my production budget and in my actor budget, so I thought we’d do an extra show. 

It was coming up to Christmas. I always feel a bit sorry for serious theatre-goers at Christmas time – who don’t have kids or grandchildren – because there’s not a lot on for them. A big part of our budgetary consideration is that we do provide children's shows at Christmas time, so the main house was tied up with that. So I thought, we’ll do a show in the bar, our secondary space there. I’m talking about the Stephen Joseph theatre at Westwood in Scarborough, which was a converted derelict high school, not the new Odeon where we moved in in 1996. It was a bit rough and ready but we had a space that could fit 70 chairs.

I said to my friend Stephen Mallatratt, who was my assistant director and resident playwright, that I wanted him to write a ghost story for Christmas. I told him he could either adapt an existing one or he could write an original one, but my main considerations were that the set and costumes couldn’t cost more than a thousand pounds, and that I only had money to pay for four actors. A couple of days later, he came back to me asking if I had read Susan Hill’s ghost story, The Woman in Black, which had come out as a novel about four or five years before. 

I read it overnight and it’s a fantastic story— terrifying. But there are over a dozen characters. He said he had an idea about that and that he might be able to give us some change, which turned out to be prophetic words. He then went on to write this extraordinary play with only two speaking parts which told the whole story in a way that enhanced the framework that Susan Hill’s wonderful novel already has, but takes it into another sphere, another theatrical space.

We did it over Christmas in 1987 and what really surprised us was that people were terrified. They really were frightened. We wondered if it was because we had crammed as many as 85 people into this tiny space and they had scared themselves. In a way, that’s what it was, because we had no resources. The play is very dependent on the audience’s imagination and what they bring to the party. There are always one or two people for whom it doesn’t work, that’s fine, but for the vast majority of people, their imaginations are much closer to the surface of themselves than they like to imagine. 

We had some wonderful reactions. It’s not just about scaring people either, it’s the way Stephen tells the story, the way he has woven Susan’s brilliant novel into what I think is an absolute masterpiece. Each time I come back to the play, I really think it is very good. It sort of defines what theatre is, what theatre does. It celebrates the art of acting. It uses some very rough magic. 

People ask how we can possibly hope to compete in this world of CGI and special effects. The answer is we don’t compete. People have got their own set of special effects in their heads, and if we can tap into that in the way that theatre always has, we can create extraordinary worlds, and it works.

Did Susan – the author – see it? What was the relationship her, if there was one?
When Stephen brought me a little synopsis, the first thing to do was to contact Susan to see if she would let us do it. We wrote to her, asking if we could adapt her novel for the stage, and as a courtesy if she would like to be involved with the process. She said she thought we were mad and that it couldn’t be done, but that she was not going to stop us. She did not want to be involved, which I thought was a very sensible approach, on the too-many-cooks principle. 

Stephen went ahead and Susan came to the very first night. Interestingly, she was born in Scarborough and lived for 17 years of her life there, so I think it was a little pilgrimage to come back from the Cotswolds where she was living at the time. She was very complimentary, and has become increasingly so as it’s gone on. The story exists in very different forms: it exists in the book, it exists in the play, and it also exists in the film. It’s an interesting beast.

How do you feel the film’s release, three or four years ago, had an impact on volumes or interpretations of the show?
I have to confess, I felt a little apprehensive when I heard it was being made. I wasn’t quite sure what sort of animal it would turn out to be, but I needn’t have worried because it doesn’t really compete. They are very different beasts. 

In terms of competition, I think it certainly raised the consciousness of the title and the work, so a lot of people who previously had not heard of The Woman in Black became aware of it. We’re running in possibly one of the smallest West End theatres, the Fortune Theatre, and we’ve been there for 27 years. It’s tiny and seats about 400 people. I think the film put the name into the public consciousness much more than it had been before. 

What was quite nice was that a lot of people who had seen the film said that one really ought to see the stage show, because it’s terrific and it does a different thing. We came out of it quite well, really.

Do you find the size and feel of the theatre lends to the play in any way, or do you feel it works in any size?
It has this extraordinary capacity to reinvent itself, to contract and expand to fit the space that is offered. I’m not saying there aren’t spaces that are better than others. I have to say I think the Fortune Theatre in London is one of the best possible spaces. It particularly works in old theatres because it’s set in an old theatre. Interestingly, it’s one of the few changes that I suggested to Steve Mallatratt, because when he first wrote it, he had written it to happen in a room. 

I said we could create a theatre in the bar. Michael Holt, the designer, built half a proscenium arch to suggest we were in an old theatre. Most theatres have a resident ghost anyway. It sort of goes with the territory, real or imagined. Theatres seem to be a receptacle for the emotions that get expressed on stage. I have a strange notion that somehow, all the passion that gets expressed on stage, the love, the hate, the yearnings and the longings, they somehow get absorbed into the fabric of the theatre. They are very special places. Old theatres have all that redolence to draw upon, and I think that’s great.

I’ve just come back from Luxembourg, where we were playing in quite a modern theatre, a big theatre with an overall capacity of over a thousand. Apart from asking for a lot more voice from the actors, it poses different challenges. If you’ve got an audience crammed into a small theatre, that’s one claustrophobic element that adds to the terror. If you’re in a bigger theatre and there are spaces around you, that can be pretty spooky too.

How did you approach the sound design and not keeping everything in one place like they do traditionally? Also, with the emergence of other West End shows like Ghost Stories, or with the Punchdrunk Theatre, you must be a massive influence on this new style of theatre…
It’s nice to think one’s had an effect. I am, by nature, pretty much a traditionalist. I’ve worked on shows that are a technical nightmare and you can produce some pretty extraordinary things, but to miss out on the liveness of theatre, actually to be in the same room as other living breathing people who are telling you a story, that is so powerful. You can’t really quantify that. It also harks back to what I was saying earlier about the power of one’s own imagination, as an audience member, to frighten oneself and to create a world almost without willing it. 

We do make our audience work: the first couple of scenes are quite confusing because no one is quite sure what is supposed to happen. I think that effort is important, because it means that people are then prepared to work to find out what the story is and how it fits together. As far as it being a muse show, people have often said they really didn’t expect to be scared in a theatre. I think that did awaken some possibilities and spawn some other lovely shows. The minimalism that we use— you can see things like 39 Steps taking that in another wonderful direction. 

The sound design is one of the weapons in the armoury of the theatre creator. Another one is we have a gauze which hangs across the stage. It just looks like a bit of old material but it’s actually carefully constructed sharkstooth gauze: if you light it on one side you can’t see through it, and if you light it on the other side it disappears, which enables the most extraordinary reveals. If you’re in a theatre auditorium, you wonder how that happened. It’s so simple that it barely stands explaining, but it does work. 

The most important weapon in the armoury is the ability of actors to transform themselves, which is what we’re trained to do. I think a lot of actors get a bit frustrated these days because all they’re ever asked to do is be themselves. The closer you happens to fit the casting director’s brief for this particular television or film character, the more likely you are to get the job. Actually, what we’re trained to do is to become other people and this play enables that capacity to be demonstrated and explored a little bit.

Do you feel The Woman in Black has changed or evolved as it’s gone on? And if it hasn’t, what is it that keeps it so fresh?
It’s definitely evolved, but it’s not really a conscious effort to do things differently. It has been so influential to my development as a director. I used to dread the re-casts. Every nine months or so I changed the cast in London because actors get very tired. Eight shows a week for 40 weeks solid is a big ask. Every time I change the cast, I always re-direct the actors myself, I don’t use a staff director, out of respect for the play as much as anything. The important thing is that I am able to say: “For these next nine months, you two actors have ownership of it. The characters that you create will be your own creations. I’m not going to say, ‘He should be gruffer than that.’ Play the people as you see them.” 

Obviously, we keep them within the truth that the story demands but there is so much that a director has on offer if he will only listen to his actors. Maybe this comes from being an actor myself initially, but I have enormous respect for them and I really like them. I think they do an extraordinary job.

When you think about it, it’s terrifying to get up and pretend to be someone else every night, so I want them to feel that they have created the play. What this means is that each time I change the cast, it gets a new blood transfusion and the play itself changes. This is partly because there are only two speaking parts in it. As a result of that, you can say, “Look, I don’t care if you get up at this point, if you sit down at that point, or if you move downstage left, you’re two actors on a stage. You can sort that out for yourselves. The set dictates certain restrictions and limitations but for the most part, play it as you see it.” 

So we have new emotional influences, new intelligence influences, new dramatic influences… This is all stuff that we negotiate so that we work out our common story. It is told as the actors want to tell it, and I think that’s kept it fresh. People say it doesn’t feel like the show’s been running for 27 years. Well it hasn’t – they have only been doing it for four weeks or whatever it is. For them, it’s really fresh.

We have so many wonderful actors in this country who possibly aren’t household names to the general public – maybe because they’ve chosen to stay more in the theatre than the screen – but there’s a wonderful wealth to draw from. We’ve had some terrific actors, both unknown at the time and then subsequently better known. People like Joseph Fiennes and Martin Freeman. Everyone learns a bit from playing The Woman in Black, it’s a full-on two hour of pure stage, and it’s great fun. 

I’ve performed it myself and it really is a ball to do.

You’ve been in classic British TV shows like Only Fools and Horses and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and also acted in The Woman in Black. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
You get different sort of directors. I’m definitely not a conceptual director. I’m there to help the actors, and I think this comes from being an actor myself. By the time I’ve finished rehearsing the play as a director, I know it anyway, but I like to think I can help actors become the best they can be. Actors like being directed by other actors, because they think, “Well at least they appreciate how difficult this is. The reason that I can’t possibly wear that coat in Act II is maybe because they’re worried about something else in Act II, rather than the coat.”

It started at Scarborough because I was part of the acting company, then I started directing the same people the next morning that I had been acting with the night before, so there was no hierarchy. I was one of them and had no special authority, except that I was calling the shots on this one. You have to be honest— if you give an actor a crap move, he’ll tell you. 

I initially performed in the play as an actor because someone had landed a television show that was going to take him out for a little while, so I went on for him for a few nights. Occasionally I get to go and do it. I did a production in Australia and the next year they wanted to take it to Singapore and Hong Kong, and the guy who played the older part had just been presented with twins by his wife, who said, “You’re not touring anywhere for a while,” so they phoned me up to ask if I could do it. 

I think that acting helps me to be a better director, and that directing helps one to be a better actor. It’s such fun.

What kind of advice do you have for up-and-coming people? A few dos and don’ts that you’ve come across in your time?
Alec Guinness’s famous advice to people before going on stage is “Blow your nose and check your flies.” That’s the practical side of it. It’s not a job like any other. You need to stay passionate and enthusiastic. If you find yourself losing that, then maybe you need to ask yourself whether you’ve run your course in the business or whether it’s entirely for you. 

Never apologise for enthusiasm and have fun. It’s got to be fun. It can be incredibly hard work, it can be incredibly demanding, but it must be fun. It’s also a team thing— that’s what drew me into it. I started drifting into plays when I was quite lonely at boarding school, and I found a community and a common purpose. You often find actors are really, very shy people. You expect them all to be very extroverted— they’re not. It’s a wonderfully welcoming community, although It’s hard work and it’s competitive.

I would suggest you train, partly because as a director you get bombarded with hundreds of applications and it’s very hard to tell from a piece of paper whether they’re any good or not, and if you’ve done a training course, that does help. I feel for actors because it’s so expensive to train now. But I would recommend it if you’re serious about going into the theatre.