Writer: Henry James
Adaptor: Tim Luscombe
Director: Daniel Buckroyd
Designer: Sara Perks
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw, is far from a conventional ghost story. In the 120 years since its publication, it has spawned countless chilling versions, from film to opera, but equally has set a platoon of academics advancing theories about the nature of evil in the story and, more radically, whether anything, in fact, happens outside the fevered imagination of the narrator.
An unnamed Governess, an inexperienced 20-year-old, is charged by their uncle to look after two children at Bly, a remote country house, and forced to promise never to contact him. Her companion/confidante is Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, who seems strangely reluctant to talk of earlier events: the previous governess, Miss Jessel, died mysteriously. The two children, Miles and Flora, are apparently goodness and beauty personified, but the Governess becomes convinced that they are possessed by the spirits of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, her lover, the owner’s valet, also dead in curious circumstances. She decides she must stand up to these forces of evil and protect the children, and it all ends tragically, but ambiguously.
The cleverness of Tim Luscombe’s adaptation, based on Dermot McLaughlin’s original conception, lies in beginning the story with the middle-aged Governess seeking employment with a woman who soon proves to be Flora as an adult. Rather implausibly Flora claims to remember nothing and interrogates the Governess as to the events at Bly. This is more than just a framing device: the grown-up Flora is there throughout to question the Governess’ motives and account of events. How much of the drama is due to her immature imaginings and desire to appear heroic, her perverted devotion to the children and their uncle? Much of it, perhaps even all of it, McLaughlin and Luscombe imply.
However, McLaughlin, Luscombe and director Daniel Buckroyd are canny enough to avoid certainties. While the forensic questioning of the adult Flora skewers the implausibility of the Governess’ narrative, a tremendous array of terrifying effects (thanks to Matt Leventhall’s lighting and John Chambers’ sound) challenges the audience not to believe in the horror and mystery of it all.
Occasionally, it must be said, the effect is not really justified by the words and action on stage. The text can be pedestrian and the production is not helped by being clearly planned for a different stage configuration, though Sara Perks’ atmospheric set works well: somehow a rocking horse rocking without a rider always spells menace and mystery.
The performances of the small cast of four all serve the concept well. Annabel Smith has a steely edge as “Mrs. Conray”, the adult Flora, all watchful intelligence and imperious gestures, but the gambolling, squealing and childish laughter as a child with Miles are tiresome. Carli Norris convinces across the years as the Governess at 50 and 20 without quite capturing the wide-eyed romanticism of her younger self. Michael Hanratty does sterling work in all the male parts (including Miles) and Maggie McCarthy takes full advantage of having only one straightforward part to inhabit by delivering a sympathetic Mrs. Grose, hinting nicely at the doubt and deception beneath her comforting exterior.
Touring nationwide | Image: Robert Workman