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Unsettling Ambiguity: Turn of the Screw

by on 3 October 2017

Turn of the Screw

by Henry James, adaption by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Teddington Theatre Club
at Hampton Hill Theatre until 7th October

Review by Melissa Syversen

The days are getting increasingly darker, the leaves are changing and a chill is settling in the air … ‘tis the season for ghost stories.  And the TTC have chosen a particularly good one to tell.  Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw was published at the very end of the Victorian Era and is one of the most famous ghost stories ever told.  In the original story, we follow as a man reads a manuscript to a friend, written by his former governess detailing her experiences whilst employed at a manor in Essex.  The story follows as the governess accepts a post from the children’s absentee uncle to look after Flora and her older brother Miles who has been recently been expelled from his boarding school.  Soon the governess becomes convinced that the spirits of the deceased former governess Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint are after the children with malevolent intent.

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It has long been speculated whether there really are ghosts haunting the children at Bly or if it is all in the head of the governess, making her an unreliable narrator.  It is arguably one of the main strengths of the novella, the uncertainty and eerie feeling that nothing is what it seems, including our heroine.   Undoubtedly, such ambiguity can be tricky to translate onto the stage.  And it is unfortunate that through much of this production is unsuccessfully at doing so.  It is not that the story is too clear or obvious, however, it is that it all just becomes quite muddled.  We are led to believe the reality of the ghosts, yet it seems to be heavily implied that not all is well with the governess either.  Played as a woman of fraying nerves by Mia Skytte Jensen, she clutches her head and is seemingly in a constant state of being unwell.  Mrs Gross, though warmly played by Dorothy Duffy, seems to flip-flop from line to line between seemingly blindly believing and not believing the governesses claims and it is very unclear whether the children see ghosts or not.  We touch on many themes such as sexuality, coming of age and obsession but none seems to really stick.

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It all produces a sense of an adaptation that wants to have its cake and eat it too.  It felt unclear to the point that I couldn’t shake the feeling that I might have missed something vital, or if we had somehow skipped an entire and important scene.  How did the governess suddenly know that Peter Quint is after Miles for instance?  The revelation that she had developed passionate feelings for the children’s absent uncle came completely out of left field.  I have not read the original novella, but I do suspect that some of these issues, at least in part, might stem from the script adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and by the direction of Harry Medawar.  The cast gives it their all, though I suspect there might have been some first-night jitters.  More than once did cast members jump the lines of their scene partner and there were a few fumbles here and there.  Such details, however, do usually iron out themselves as premiere nerves subside and confidence surges.  Scene changes will we hope also flow better as the week progresses to aid the overall pacing.  But I must say that Juliet Hill is wonderfully charming and self-assured as the young Flora.  Together with a solid Joshua Stainer as her recently returned older brother Miles, they successfully conjure both a heart-warming yet unnerving connection that these young siblings seem to have.

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And as always, the TTC creative team has knocked it out of the park.  Lizzie Lattimore and Jenna Powell have designed a strikingly complex Victorian style set made up of dark woods and deep colours and creates a chillingly haunted atmosphere.  I was particularly impressed with the view from the centre stage window and how the weather would change seamlessly.  The costumes were beautiful and there are excellent lighting tricks such as a fireplace and lightning in the night.  All of this together with clever use of projections and music creates a suitably beautiful yet unnerving environment for our ghost story.

I do think The Teddington Theatre Club deserves praise for their ambitious programming and willingness to take on challenging scripts.  They consistently make strong choices, like their excellent production of Jez Butterworths Jerusalem. (See review)  This time, however, they, unfortunately, do not successfully pull it off.  Horror stories in the gothic style are very difficult to get right.  The best ones, such as The Turn of the Screw are all a masterclass in pacing, anticipation and tension.  If the timing of the story is not racer, sharp, it crumbles.  Too fast and you can’t build tension.  Too slow and people become impatient.  I feel that the pacing is one of the main issues here.  The first half of the first act moves along slowly, almost frustratingly, but it works in a way because it makes you wonder where this might be going.  But the first haunting scene where the governess spots a figure in the tower is rushed and hasty, to the point that one almost gets a whiplash.  And so, it continues through the evening, dragging on when providing exposition, yet ghostly spotting is so rushed and seemingly out of left field they hardly get the build-up or pay-off they deserve.  (Though there was one moment that worked very well and had me nearly jump out of my seat.  I won’t spoil by saying when though!)  In the end, it strikes me that this adaptation could have benefited from making stronger choices, regarding characters, the nature of the presence of Mr Quint and Miss Jessel and what themes of the story to explore.  One can’t play ambiguity.  The ambiguity is in the story and clearer choices would have served the unsettling and dualistic elements of the play better.   Even if the script adaptation were not the strongest, the director and cast need to make strong choices and trust that the multifaceted nature of the source material will shine through.  Such is the quality of the original story.

Melissa Syversen

October 2017

Photographs by Sarch Carter

From → Drama, Reviews

  1. Philip Goodman permalink

    Isn’t the point of the original story of The Turn of the Screw that it is ambiguous. Isn’t that THE WHOLE POINT!!!!

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