Review: The Turn of the Screw

Alice Mottram 15 May 2015

Henry James’s well-known gothic tale is of a governess who is sent to Bly Mansion to care for two orphaned children following the grim death of her successor.  Very quickly she begins to become aware of ethereal figures whom she claims haunt both the mansion’s ground and the children.    

As the governess, Helena Blair’s frantic nervousness never ceased throughout the play, whether in exhaustion or excitement, creating a constant tension balanced by the evasiveness of Mrs Grose, the housekeeper.  The undertone of perverse sexual aggression that pulsated throughout every encounter between Blair and Miles, the ten-year-old boy she describes as ‘perfection’, was subversively hidden beneath what at times seemed an appropriately nurturing relationship.

It was precisely this consistent act of balancing, and the resulting ambiguity, that thrilled the play with suspense.  The audience, manipulated into a constant lack of certitude, felt their own mental sureness being called into question at the same time as they watched that of the characters disintegrate on stage, subtly reflected in the increasing clutter brought on to what was otherwise a static set.

The use of lighting and a well-placed hanging window frame at the front of the stage cast shadows throughout the play, often with the characters being followed by their own.  Just the right amount of irony was also present in the clichéd banging of desk lids and extinguishing of candles, its self-consciousness still not enough to stop the audience from jumping every time.  

The play’s emphasis lay undoubtedly in the governess’s psyche, and increasingly called it into question.  Whether the thrilling effect of its ambiguity was somewhat lost in the final moment, when she kissed the dead Miles, is debatable.  What is sure, however, is that this gothic ghost tale’s resounding chill is still difficult to shake off outside of the theatre.

8/10

The Turn of the Screw is at the ADC, 11pm until Saturday.