sat 20/07/2024

The Turn of the Screw, Almeida Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Turn of the Screw, Almeida Theatre

The Turn of the Screw, Almeida Theatre

Jamesian subtlety is not high on the agenda in this Gothic thrills-and-spills adaptation

Laurence Belcher as Miles and Anna Madeley as Governess All photo credits: Nobby Clark

There are quite a few laughs in this new adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s chilling and ambiguous novella, written in 1897 after he was told a tale of children possessed by their deceased household servants. As a result I found this production thoroughly entertaining, while appreciating that not all the laughs were intentional.

Though Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s reworking tries to retain the uneasy tension between a straightforward ghost story and a psychological unravelling – are the children really possessed by demonic forces, or is the new governess, played ably and with increasing hysteria by Anna Madeley, simply on the edge of a nervous crisis? – but Jamesian subtlety is not high on the agenda.

Lenkiewicz clearly favours an overripe Freudian telling of the tale that effectively strips the story of much of its cunning slipperiness. At one point, Madeley intimately touches herself after she discovers a mysterious pornographic letter by her bed. And we even have Peter Quint’s ghost – Eoin Geoghegan employs a kind of gallumping, zombyish gait on the one occasion we see him move – emerging from the governess’s bed just after she's slipped under the sheets. This to much squealing and delighted laughter from the audience, especially, too, when Miss Jessel (Caroline Bartleet) appears as if by an illusionist’s trick behind a desk in the children’s classroom.

And then we have the over-theatrical sound effects: the ghostly scratching of chalk, as well as the slow Belshazzar-like appearance of the words “They are mine” on the blackboard; and the apparent yowling of foxes in the night, a sound that becomes all too human the more alarmed the governess becomes. Needless to say, it’s rather more Hammer Horror than Jamesian ambiguity, an effect hardly played down by Peter McKintosh’s admittedly rather gorgeous Gothic set that might belong more to an adaption of Matthew Lewis's The Monk, or indeed The Woman in Black.

Lindsay Posner's direction could have reined in some of the theatrical excess 

None of this is unenjoyable, but the subtle, haunting elusiveness of the original gets somewhat lost. Other adaptations have famously fared bettered. Britten’s opera is a masterclass in psychologically eliding the figures of the governess and Quint, without losing that sense that there is something very disturbing indeed about these two angelic children. And Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents is equally brilliant at quiet suggestion, hinting at things just seen in the corner of the eye but which then quickly evaporate, leaving lingering, uneasy sensations in their wake.  

Gemma Jones as Mrs GroseLindsay Posner’s direction could have reined in some of this theatrical excess, but a decision was clearly made to go full-throttle on the spooky flashes of light and the bumps and scratches in the night. As we can hear from the audience’s laughter this decision was misjudged. However, the cast themselves can’t really be faulted. Gemma Jones as the housekeeper Mrs Grose (pictured right) is excellent, delineating a fine balance between protecting the children from accusations of corruption and wickedness and being drawn into the governess’s desperate rescue mission. Meanwhile, Madeley does her best to ratchet up her hysteria in a convincing manner.

There are three young actresses who take turns playing Flora in alternate performances. On the night I attended it was 12-year-old Lucy Morton, who is certainly more angelic than demonic. Meanwhile, the boy playing 12-year-old Miles is actually 17-year-old Laurence Belcher. One might understand why the production opted for an older actor to inhabit this sexually suggestive role, but something is inevitably lost of the disquieting nature of the relationship between the boy and the evidently sexually inexperienced and frustrated governess. Nonetheless, Belcher’s emotional gear-changes, from infantile clinginess to explosions of anger and precocious hectoring, are skilfully done. But though this production has something to offer in the Gothic thrills-and-spills stakes, it's not quite what James would have had in mind.

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An overripe Freudian telling of the tale that effectively strips the story of much of its cunning slipperiness


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Surely, the original stage production at the Haymarket Theatre, of "The Innocents", starring Flora Robson and including a very young Jeremy Spencer, deserves a mention.

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