The Turn of the Screw, Almeida Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
The Turn of the Screw, Almeida Theatre
Jamesian subtlety is not high on the agenda in this Gothic thrills-and-spills adaptation
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.
Lindsay 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.
- The Turn of the Screw at the Almeida Theatre until 16 March
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
A 19th-century comedy full of witty observations, sly mimicry and sarcastic asides
Arthur Miller classic returns to the stage stripped back and stirred up
Trevor Nunn is back on form in a straight production that lets Coward's play do the talking
Politics and cooking coalesce in Syrian-themed solo show
Moscow's theatrical vanguardist talks Shostakovich, Shakespeare and more
The playwright Anya Reiss on modernising Chekhov for Southwark Playhouse
Baz Luhrmann's film has become a musical at last, after a 30-year journey
Women prosper in an unusually egalitarian celebration of London theatre
Inventive site-specific family entertainment reclaims an abandoned dockside customs house
The company director for deaf and disabled performers introduces their collaboration with a Brazilian circus troupe
Looking for a spot of cultural activity for your family this Easter hols?
The meaning of royalty cleverly probed by Mike Bartlett