Discussion: Turn of the Screw

I love seeing theatrical adaptations of literature generally but especially when I have studied that particular literature whether personally or during my time at university. It is because of this that I was so excited to see that the UK Tour of Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Henry James’ darling of academia Turn of the Screw would be making its final stop at Cardiff’s New Theatre. In 1840 a young governess agrees to look after two orphaned children in Bly, a seemingly idyllic country house. However, she quickly realises that they are joined by the ghosts of Bly’s troubled past.

I studied James’ novella as part of my Gender and Monstrosity module in the third year of my English Literature degree at Cardiff University, led by Ann Heilman, so I will be reviewing both the theatrical presentation of the narrative as I usually do but then I will move into a discussion of the adaptation and how it relates to the critical thoughts on James’ novella that I’m personally familiar with. Unfortunately, the tour has now closed so, therefore, there will be spoilers in this review and it will take the form of a discussion.

At first, I was intrigued by the cast list featuring only The Governess, Mrs Conray, Mrs Grose and The Man. To those who have studied the book only two of those names are familiar and some very vital names are missing and these factored into some of the biggest changes and inspirations of Luscombe’s adaptation. I will start first with the largest change, the absence of the children, Miles and Flora. They are not, in fact, absent as one of Michael Hanratty’s many roles as The Man included Miles and Mrs Conray is revealed very early on to be the adult Flora using a fake name to attract the Governess and discuss the past with her. Part of me was worried that this revelation had come far too soon, however, Annabel Smith’s simply stand out exemplary acting soon put these fears to rest as she effortlessly switched between welcoming, threatening and an eight-year-old girl. She then, along with Carli Norris as the Governess, must constantly switch between the present and the past and provide the two sides of the Governess’ account; invested and rational. I loved this major change far more than I thought I would.

I will admit, I thought more would be made of the ghosts and their methods of death. While they are still major aspects my thoughts on the presentation of the ghosts individually are not as involved with the narrative of the play but the theatrical and inspirational elements around the play. This adaptation, in including these extra segments of dialogue between the Governess and Flora in the present, is far more focuses on the character relationships until a very pivotal point which I will discuss further down below.

The language, as another aspect of the theatrical play and narrative which must be split between the present and past, was very intriguing to my English Lit student brain. The language seemed to inhabit a multitude of conflicts seeming to both be very specific and very ambiguous at the same time. Some lines were still taken directly from James’ novella but it allows the audience to be the judge as the Governess and Flora present two sides to a long-standing academic argument; the mental state of the Governess in relation to the presence of the ghosts. Flora argues that the Governess imagined, or at least exaggerated, the presence of the ghosts while even the inclusion of these present-day segments reveal that the Governess was so impacted by her time at Bly that she can recall these events exactly and emotionally. In the opening scenes the Governess also reveals that, after her time at Bly, she was too unwell to work as a governess but eventually went back to work and did so to an excellent standard.

Personally, I found that the language, and even the staging, of Luscombe’s adaptation, supported the interpretation of James’ novella discussed by my lecturer Professor Ann Heilman of Cardiff Universtiy. Heilman argued that certain passages of James’ novella could depict that the children in their relationships with Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, mainly Miles’ relationship with Quint, in life could have taken the form of abuse. The specific words which were chosen by Mrs Grose to describe Quint’s life even in this adaptation fitted this interpretation very well. There was also a particularly sensual scene between Annabel Smith and Michael Hanratty’s characters which is triggered by the Governess questioning if there was ever a relationship between Miss Jessel and Quint. Initially, due to Michael Hanratty also playing Quint, you believe that this vision depicts the Governess’ overactive romanticised imagination concerning their relationship. However, upon realising that, as the two characters are seen onstage together, Annabel Smith does not also play Miss Jessel this scene takes on another creepy disconcerting dimension.

James’ novella is perhaps most famous for the ambiguity of its ending scene which makes the staging of such ambiguity a daunting task. This adaption does pin itself into a particular interpretation of the ending as it is very clear that the Governess is not malicious towards Miles and instead believed to be protecting him due to an apparently shared fear of the ghosts. However, her physical tendencies are highlighted towards Mrs Grouse and even in the present time towards an adult Flora. Therefore, this ending shows that while it was indeed her physical actions which killed Miles she does so without knowledge or intent to do so. The ambiguity of the ending is instead passed on to two aspects, the second of which will be discussed below. The ending is left hanging as such as, despite her seeking out the Governess as an adult to seek information concerning her brother, Flora, as an adult, does not speak or confront the Governess about the death of her brother after the scene has been depicted for her. Personally, I’m torn as to whether I wanted the play to instead end on their discussions as to intent or method of death or even to see Flora’s specific reaction or instead to settle for an ambiguity perfectly captured by Luscombe’s adaptation as it felt right that a presentation of James’ work should end this way.

My main issue with this new cast list is simply how short it is. I admit I love it when actors display their ability to double up but I found that giving Hanratty the roles of the uncle, Miles and Quint actually harmed the narrative. This is not a comment on Hanratty’s ability to act out the three roles and I was impressed by his ability to switch. However, I would have prefered to have a different male actor play the role of Quint. In her first visitation, it is clear that the Governess is daydreaming of the uncle but the switch to Quint is not very clear. It would have been more shocking, and more fitting with the tone of the play, for the audience to see Hanratty’s appearance suddenly switch into someone completely different.

Unfortunately, the uncle or Mrs Grouse, played by Maggie McCarthy, were not as mysterious as they originally appeared in the book. I found McCarthy’s portrayal very heartwarming but very simple. The character itself had a lot of potential to be mysterious with the inclusion of the future segments but this potential was snuffed out by the sheer simplicity of her role. This simplicity also affected the uncle who was resigned to a romantic daydream.

On the other hand, I was extremely happy to see so many homages to what is, not only both my favourite ghostly themed novel and favourite play of all time, but also in many ways the sister novel and play to Turn of the ScrewThe Woman in Black written by Susan Hill and adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt. Some pieces of inspiration are clearer than others. For example, Miss Jessel looks exactly like the literal Woman in Black. They look, act and glide identically. They are also identical in their treatment as neither are listed in the programme, cast list or are given a final bow. This is intriguing as, during the narrative, Quint appears to be the more threatening presence within the house, however, this dramatic treatment of Miss Jessel turns her into the far more intriguing ghost. She embodied, in her relationship with space, how wonderful the lighting and set design of this production was as her coming was signalled by a gorgeous crack along the floorboards.

However, the reflection between Miss Jessel, and to an extent Quint, and the Woman in Black goes deeper than this. Despite my torn feelings concerning the conclusion of the play, I liked that the last thing seen by the audience are the ghosts sillouetted in the area typically used in this production to mark what is outside. It is ambigous, due to the blurred staging between past and present as Flora watches the scene depicting her brother’s final moments, as to whether these ghosts are outside Bly which would support the Governess’ sighting of them outside or if they are looking on at Flora and the Governess in the present and have moved to Flora’s home. The concept of the ghosts leaving Bly actually ties into what I’m hoping to make a major point of my upcoming masters dissertation discussing ghosts in literature. The two ghosts starkly reflect Mallatratt’s adaption of The Woman in Black here as, similarly, the Woman in Black is revealed to have left Eel Marsh House and has instead moved to the theatre in which the Actor and Kipps are practicing. Personally I foudn this a very fitting way to shift the focus of Turn of the Screw, which had been almost purley character and relationship driven up to this point, back onto the ghosts and the ambiguity so present in James’ novella.

To conclude, I’m very sad that this tour has come to an end as I found it very enjoyable and intriguing to watch especially as a fan of James’ original Turn of the Screw. I felt that the actors did perfect justice to Luscombe’s adaptation which, while also providing some specifics and answers, did not attempt to change the core ambiguity of Turn of the Screw. I wish this play was published in script form as I could include it further in my studies but if this has interested you I would highly recommend the novella Turn of the Screw, Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black and the play adaptation currently running in London. Also, if my Masters dissertation idea interested anyone I do plan on writing more blog posts concerning this idea so keep your eyes peeled.


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