“Turn of the Screw”, written by Henry James in 1898, is an essential component in the canon of English Literature adapted for stage here by Tim Luscombe. It is co-produced by Mercury Theatre Colchester, Wolverhampton Grand Theatre and Exeter Northcott Theatre, and directed by Daniel Buckroyd. At under two hours running time, with Act one at forty- five minutes, and Act two at fifty, it does not waste a moment. Although over a hundred and twenty years old, the tale has lost none of its snap crackle and pop . Luscombe’s vision is bathed with Gothic splendour.
Originally a horror novella, it first appeared in serial format, in twelve parts, in Collier’s Weekly magazine (January 27 – April 16, 1898). In October 1898 it appeared in The Two Magics, a book published by Macmillan in New York City and Heinemann in London. James revised The Turn of the Screw ten years later for his New York Edition and subsequently made several changes including the children’s ages.
Classified as both gothic fiction and a ghost story, the novella focuses on a governess who, caring for two children at a remote estate, becomes convinced that the grounds are haunted. Modern audiences may see this as purely a ghost story. Yet when it was originally written, Spiritualism and the supernatural were mainstream concerns. Henry James was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, which was established in 1882, a body replete with academics, philosophers, and scientists, which survives to this day.
The story pivots on whether what we are seeing is real, or in the imagination of the Governess. Evil hovers, confusion and suspense abound. Luscombe offers no answers, his adaptation simply strengthens the ambivalence of the conundrum. The intrinsic strength of the tale has seen it retold on numerous occasions, and on every platform; radio drama, film, stage, opera, ballet, and television, including a 1950 Broadway play, and the 1961 film The Innocents.
A four hander, the parts are played by Janet Dibley as The Governess, Amy Dunn is Mrs Conroy, Mrs Grose is played by Maggie McCarthy and The Man is portrayed by Elliot Burton, with the children very effectively played by adult actors doubling up.
Dibley, best known for her work in The Two of Us, Coronation St and East Enders, is compelling at the centre of the strange and sinister, her character seemingly always on the edge of insanity. Her opening interview with her prospective employer, is a masterpiece in controlled manipulation. Dunn, McCarthy and Burton are superb, balancing melodrama with razor sharp tension.
This is part ghost story, part psychological thriller, but eschews stereotypical ghosts. Instead the ghosts are eerie extensions of everyday reality, with the exact lines blurred. The stage features an irregular, offset, set, innovatively conceived by Sara Perks and spookily lit by David Kidd. The amount of light in scenes shadows the strength of the supernatural or ghostly forces apparently at work. John Chambers provides a classic soundscape full of discordant notes, jolts and bangs. Period costume, delightfully realised by Ella Clarke, and set , meld perfectly, in a beautifully presented production, rich to the eye, menacing the soul. A rocking horse is revealed at curtain up, in motion, with no-one else around. From then on, the mystery and suspense is meticulously layered, teasing, and tempting the expectations of the audience.
Luscombe asks to believe both the proposition that the governess is mad, and that the ghosts really do exist, and consider both dreadful implications simultaneously. The exact nature of the evil alluded to is unspecified but sexual violence and coercion seep from the pores of this powerful production. Director David Buckroyd has fashioned a gem of a show which runs until Saturday 11th May.