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Theatre Review: Turn of the Screw

10 April 19 words: Ian Douglas

Depraved spectres of evil intent stalk orphans in a remote house

A tale drenched in depravity. A story of orphans at perilous risk from spectres of evil intent. A remote country house, where the supernatural lurks. Yes, it is a new theatrical adaptation of the Turn of the Screw, playing now at the Theatre Royal.

The original novella, by legendary American-British author Henry James, is famous and rightly so. Not only is it a classic Victorian ghost story, with the gothic turned up to the max. It is seen as an early example of modern literature, because it is also a psychological thriller. Henry James, as well as hobnobbing with the crème of Victorian society’s artists and writers, had a brother called William James who was a pioneering psychologist. So, no wonder then, that Henry infuses his narrative with a psychological aspect. In laymen’s terms, the story can be interpreted in different ways. Is the estate of Bly stalked by two degenerate ghosts, or is it merely a child’s game? Or even, is it all in the fevered imagination of the young and naïve governess employed by the mysterious ‘Master’?

Let’s get one issue out in the open and out of the way. The story is built upon a very controversial plot. It was discomforting when the story was published in 1898 and it is even more discomforting today.

The Governess, the protagonist, becomes convinced that the two children in her charge, Myles and Flora, are falling victim to the recently deceased ghosts of Peter Quint and his lover Miss Jessel. But victim in what way? The text goes to pains to continually tell us how perverse and depraved, yet handsome and charming, Quint was in life. He excelled at drawing people into his ‘games’. That his affair with Miss Jessel, the previous governess, was unholy and unspeakable. And both spent many hours with the children, out of sight, where no adult could find them.

So, the ghosts are aiming to possess the children in order to carry on their kinky love affair. To put it in twenty-first-century speak, the children are being groomed for sexual abuse from beyond.

Wisely, this production uses adults in the children’s roles, and once you adjust to adults carrying on like kids, the ruse works well. This is an economic production, with only four actors, two of them doubling up as children, adults, and ghosts. Janet Dibley, best known for her television work (Coronation Street, Eastenders), is fine as the governess, confused, scared, haunted, but striving to save her charges from this invisible threat. Her character is repressed, a lover of salacious novels, and cooped up in the middle of nowhere. This opens the possibility that maybe she is projecting her own demons onto Flora and Myles. And clearly, her fascination with the scandalous gossip about Quint is more than moral outrage.

Elliot Burton pulls off the tricky task of playing both the boy Myles and the malevolent spirit Quint. The script has been adapted by Tim Luscombe, framing it as a flashback, which serves to enhance the ‘are-they-real-or-is-she-delusional’ subtext.

Come see the play and decide for yourself. Who is the true threat to the children’s welfare, wicked ghosts? or the morally rigid governess?

Turn of the Screw plays at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal from Tuesday April 9 2019 to Saturday April 13 2019.

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