Henry James’s chilling novella The Turn of the Screw has inspired many adaptations, perhaps because the truth of what goes on in the story seems so elusive. The governess at the heart of it seems to be caught between several terrifying possibilities: that the children in her care are controlled by the malevolent ghosts she glimpses around their isolated old house; that the ghostly apparitions are all in her unravelling mind; that the children are in fact tormenting her. And the story ventures into disturbing psycho-sexual terrain as the children’s strange remarks hint at too much knowledge. Did the former governess and the valet Quint, both now dead, abuse them? Or does our governess’s fevered imagination read too much into these oddly inscrutable minors?
The difficulty, though, in staging the story is in keeping an edge of uncertainty that is truly haunting. While Lindsay Posner’s production has some creepy moments, it is not enigmatic enough to be disturbing, and the ghosts are too literal and too solid to convey that half-seen, hair-raising terror. The special effects might make you jump, but they won’t make you freeze.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation deftly picks out the psychological terrain, sketching in the story’s preoccupation with grief, loneliness, broken families, sexuality and parenthood. Flora and Miles have lost their parents, but the governess herself also comes from a troubled home. She arrives at the house fresh from a strange interview with the children’s guardian, in which he flirts with her, chatters on amiably about ghosts, reveals a slightly troubling adoration of his dead sister and charges her to love the children “as if they were your own”. It is clear in this post-Freudian reading that the ghosts, real or imagined, trouble her repressed sexuality.
Anna Madeley carries off this difficult part well, conveying her character’s struggle to cling on to propriety while losing her bearings. Gemma Jones is very good as the kindly (or is she?) housekeeper, while Laurence Belcher and Emilia Jones (one of three Floras) keep a fine balance between innocence and precocity as the children. But the potential confusion of the psychological and the physical is only fitfully realised and the staging becomes a stop-start Gothic mix of sexual fantasy and things going bump in the night. Tim Mitchell lights Peter McKintosh’s spooky set to eerie effect, but it’s all a bit too enjoyably alarming. I’ve been scared witless by this story before – not this time.