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Hurst returns to PumpHouse as haunted lead in gothic horror

Flagstaff Team

Spooky setting… In The Woman in Black, actor Michael Hurst plays a retired lawyer, beset by the past, who attempts to banish the ghostly figure of the title

Leading New Zealand actor Michael Hurst is looking forward to a season at the PumpHouse in Takapuna, saying the heritage theatre has the right eerie atmosphere for his role in The Woman in Black.

In the modern classic gothic horror play, staged by Masked Productions, his character is stricken with past memories in a theatre rumoured to have its own ghost.

Hurst, who has taken leading stage and screen roles for decades, has appeared at the PumpHouse once before, back in the 1980s, when he was in Shakespeare’s Richard III.

He remembers it as a lovely venue, full of character, making it well suited to The Woman in Black.

“The play is basically set in a theatre, so the PumpHouse is perfect, and it will readily lend a spooky atmosphere to the production.”

Despite the theatre world being full of superstitions, Hurst told the Observer that he was not one to believe in ghosts or be superstitious. “But that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy stories about the supernatural, or that I haven’t felt the frisson that comes with the crawling fear associated with the ‘strange and unexplained’. I just know that there’s an explanation.”

Small venues such as the PumpHouse had an intimate appeal, he said.

Having started his career at the Court Theatre in Christchurch and then spent around six years at Theatre Corporate in Auckland he looks back fondly. “We did the biggest plays in those tiny venues – high-octane acting at close quarters.

Hurst promised The Woman in Black would be “an absorbing and unnerving theatre experience”. It is also the first by Masked Productions since Covid struck.

The theatre collective, which stages plays at various venues, was last at the PumpHouse in 2017 with Reasons to bBe Pretty and, before that, Closer, in 2015.

Hurst said the company was eager to get back on the boards after the Covid hiatus with a tightly written, clever and scary production that would have audiences sitting on the edge of their seats. “It’s been almost a year since any of us have been able to go to the theatre. We are at our most human when we are sharing experiences with others, and it is a deep and often under-appreciated loss when we are prevented from doing so. There is nothing like a play or a concert to bring people together on a human level. The unique and risky nature of live performance in a room full of people can’t be replaced with streaming services.”

The much-adapted play by Stephen Mallatratt, based on a novel written by Dame Susan Hill in 1983, is directed by Matthew Hall.

Hurst plays Arthur Kipps, a retired lawyer beset by the past. After failing to shake off his dark memories, he hires a run-down theatre space and engages a young actor (co-star Zane Fleming) to tell his story in a bid to banish the ghostly ‘Woman in Black’.

The play opened on London’s West End in 1989 and has been terrifying audiences since, making it the second-longest-running play there, after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.

Hurst – who in 2005 was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to film and the theatre – describes his character as burdened, haunted and strangely theatrical.

“It’s fun to dig into the darker side of human psychology. Actors are often asked to do this and I think it’s safe to say we love those kinds of roles. You just need to keep a balance.”

Although this is only Hurst’s second appearance on stage locally, he remembers another significant Takapuna connection from his early years acting in Auckland. “I played the role of The Boy in Bruce Mason’s The End of the Golden Weather in 1981 at Theatre Corporate.” The dramatisation of the Takapuna-based playwright’s solo show came a year before the death of the man who gave his name to performing arts venue The Bruce Mason Centre.

“I met him,” said Hurst. “He came to rehearsals. He was dying, I believe. He watched us perform and cried. It was a very moving moment.”

  • The Woman in Black by Masked Productions is on at the PumpHouse Theatre, Takapuna, from 11-25 June, with tickets priced from $35-$40. Book online through the PumpHouse website. pumphouse.co.nz

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