Atmosphere is everything in the Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw. It’s a ghost story certainly, one of literature’s most famous; it’s also a study in feminine psychology. The setting is an old country mansion in Essex and the protagonist a young governess taking charge of two children, the orphaned nephew and niece of her employer. On the surface, they are model children. Under that angelic surface…?
The ghosts in question are those of the former governess Miss Jessel and an over-reaching valet ,Quint. The problem for Clare Goddard in staging the Ken Whitmore dramatisation in an intimate theatre where the small stage laps at the feet of the audience is how to materialise them. Housekeeper Mrs Grose cannot see them (at least, she says that she can’t), but they are palpable to Miss Grey (the governess is unnamed in James’ story and the Britten opera based on it) and to sub-teenage Flora and Miles.
It’s not a problem which Goddard wholly resolves, but perhaps it is an impossible task. Some eerie flute music (composed by James Walsh and played by Natasha Purwin) and distorted sounds suggest the atmosphere effectively enough, but the lighting at times throws disconcerting reflexions of actors waiting to make an entrance. The uncredited set makes the most of the space on offer.
Rebecca Todd is a fiery Miss Grey, almost bulldozing her way to “rescue’ her charges from malign influences. These, at the performance I saw, are played by two highly accomplished young performers – Daisy Kerry as Flora and Albert Smith as Miles. Ilona Linthwaite is a slightly down-market housekeeper – should she not be more like Jane Eyre’s Mrs Fairfax?
Jamie Chapman has an introductory cameo as the overly laid-back man-about-town uncle and guardian. We see, but never hear, Miss Jessel and Peter Qunit. Both Madeleine Brolly and Rupert Mason radiate the required sinister attraction, with the emphasis being on sinister. The final turn of the psychological screw of the title is on Miles’ last cry. For me, at any rate, it was a pity to open each act of the play with this.