“Be not afraid of shadows”

Richard III, Act 5, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

…And I’m back. Sorry everyone, I was in Salamanca for a week and so didn’t have long enough access to a computer to be able to post anything. Hopefully you were all on half term too and didn’t miss me too much! Anyway, the icy wind whirling around the school library is chilling my hands so much I can barely type, so I feel it’s a good moment to talk about the terrifying production of ‘The Turn of the Screw’, originally written by Henry James and currently on in a brand new version at the Almeida Theatre.images

 I studied the novella last year as part of my English AS Level, and so was a little bit dubious about going to see it since, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I get just a teeny weeny bit obsessive about keeping precisely to the text – I took my annotated copy of ‘An Inspector Calls’ to the play and then irritated the hell out of my mum by complaining all the bus ride home about how far they’d strayed from the original script and how I thought they should have done it, blah blah blah… Thankfully, I think I’ve got a little less anal about precision and accuracy now, but suffice to say that the main feature of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is its ambiguity (the narrator, the governess, can be interpreted as either naïve and a victim of terrible ghosts or a psychotic, repressed neurotic who invents the spirits to hurt the children. I personally tend to favour the latter) and so, to me, putting on a play where one interpretation has to be chosen over all others seemed unwise.

However… although they definitely plumped down hard on the side of ‘the ghosts are real, the children are possessed and this is a horror story’, the production, especially the staging, was so skilfully done that I didn’t even care. Full use was made of the revolving stage and transformations from a sitting room to a bedroom to a lake with a jetty were seamlessly carried out. The exposed brick and panelled wood combined with the dim lighting and eerie music that accompanied each scene change definitely created an atmosphere of terror and suspense so that by the time the slouching sneering figure of Peter Quint (the male ghost, played by Eoin Geoghegan) appeared high up at the back of the stage the audience were so keyed up that a number of gasps and screams were emitted from all over the theatre.

But that was nothing compared to the screeches that emanated when, after a crack of lightening and a rumble of thunder, he materialised, one second lurking outside the window, the next actually in the room, smirking at the terror on the governess’ face. The play was full of these sudden surprises, sometimes using a false sense of security to bring about even greater terror. Once, Quint and Miss Jessel (the ex-dead governess, played by Caroline Bartleet) were seen again, outside the window – ooh, boundaries, liminality, all that jazz – kissing in a much less threatening way than any of their earlier apparitions and vanishings, which led everyone to believe that the shock this time had failed finally. However, an even greater jolt was to follow. As the governess slowly padded back to her bed, and the audience let out a sigh of relief, as she pulled back the sheets and lifted her foot to get in, the duvet twitched and the creepy mysterious figure emerged like a monster from the deep black darkness. It brought to mind Yeats’ line from ‘The Second Coming’: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” It was the indifference, the single-minded leer that really made his figure malevolent and therefore allowed the audience to believe in the governess’ fear and desperate conviction in her theories as to the fate of the children. Another pretty cool *special effect* was when, as in Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’, the chalk on the blackboard suddenly sprung to life, screeching its way down the slate to form the shaky words: ‘They are mine…’ until it abruptly dropped with a ‘clack’ to the tray below. Spooooky stuff.

Apart from all the ghostly elements, another theory massively played up in the production was that of the Freudian, sexual repression-type stuff. To begin with, both children were around three years older than they are in the novella: Miles was suddenly around 15, with Flora at 10. One thing I found very odd was how often they spoke. This isn’t a criticism; I was simply taken aback, as I always pictured them as eerily silent, only speaking when spoken to and creeping about decrepit Bly ever so quietly. Nevertheless, their constant chatter worked in a different way, and nothing was particularly lost from this. Also, practically, you can’t have a stage full of silence for two hours, can you?

Laurence Belcher, who played Miles, was incredibly good, especially as he had one Imageof the hardest parts, with tons of weird sexual hints and crude words thrown in. He even had to kiss the governess at one point, which, I have to be honest, I didn’t think was extremely necessary. However, if the object of the production was to disturb, the odd connection between the governess and the possessed Miles-Quint certainly achieved that. Anna Madeley, as the nameless governess, was also impressive, and actually succeeded in making me feel a bit more sympathetic to her plight. Call me a heartless cow if you want, but she is just so irritating in the book and so sure of herself, I simply can’t stand any of her annoying little deductions or worries. Perhaps it was as a result of the certainty of the ghosts’ existence, but Madeley made me a lot more understanding towards the governess and maybe a little more allowing of her stupidity at times.

Overall, a much better play than I was expecting. It was completely different to the original book, but probably easier and maybe even more enjoyable for most people. If you’re looking to be scared or disturbed this is the one for you. But don’t worry. As the world’s biggest wuss, I can assure you that even if you get scared very easily, there won’t be any nightmares to haunt you; I think seeing the actors taking their bows at the end reassures you that it is all simply a fantasy.


Or is it….?

One thought on ““Be not afraid of shadows”

  1. Great blog. James loved the play and it sacred him witless at times! I won’t call you a ‘heartless cow’!

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