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I wouldn’t say they had me from the off. Which is not to say I wasn’t very much looking forward to Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of the chilling novella, The Turn of the Screw by the famously obscure American writer Henry James. And I can’t say that sense of anticipation wasn’t heightened sitting in The Almeida, a theatre surely built for such an intimately thrilling story, its concave shape utilised to the utmost by designer Peter Macintosh to form a sort of Macabre Victorian maw-like darkness that threatens to envelop you where you sit. To top it all off, how could you go wrong in the expert hands of famed director Lindsay Posner, in whose deft hands so many great American works have been realised to great acclaim on stage?
I grant the tension in the opening scene was subtle and wonderfully underplayed with hints, gestures, coughs and intimating clearings of the throat between the young governess and her employer Mr. Sackville, whose niece and nephew she will be looking after for the remainder of the narrative. Anna Madely captures with perfect primness the repressed Victorian woman internalizing the constrictions of her own society. We see instantly the chemistry that tragically, will only last this one scene. So far, so enjoyable. And in fact this is one particularly part where the medium of the stage fleshes out the characters and allows them room to explore their world a little more than the book does.
It’s when the action moves to Bly, the Essex manor where most of the story takes place and where Flora and Miles, said nephew and niece reside, that I get the uncomfortable feeling that subtlety has decided to take a break for a while and The Hammer Theatre of Horror starts to live up to its name. Everything is shadowy and grim and gothic, complete with bats, thunderstorms and sinister music that plays between scenes. We get the sudden appearance of phantoms, which is at least moderately impressive and will leave an audience marvelling at the work of illusionist Scott Penrose. Between all the shadows and the bumps in the night though, the story starts to feel a bit lost.
I can tell you that much of the audience was jumping at the appropriate points, but then much of the audience was made up of sixth formers probably studying Henry James for the A Levels. I thought it well timed and well orchestrated, but also felt like I’d seen it before, in The Woman in Black possibly with more impact. I realise the gothic style is supposed to indulge itself, but the rather rich indulgences had me wishing that Posner had chosen to go a bit more austere, the result of which was that I started saying to myself the one thing that you don’t want an audience to say in an adaptation: Oh. It wasn’t like that in the book. But I couldn’t help it. In the book, both children are endearing, especially Miles. On stage, Miles seems insolent, irritating, artful and sinister from the start, which makes The Governess’ taking to him all the more implausible. Laurence Belcher puts in what is an amazing performance for such a young actor (more on this later), but I don’t know if there is any actor of appropriate age who could capture endearingly innocent and a subtle subtext of darkness underneath. Gemma Jones as Mrs. Grose is wonderful in her fretting, hand-wringing rural insularity, but also underutilized in the first act. Overall, things feel flat and undeveloped, as though seams of the narrative are unravelling heading into the interval.
Thankfully, it does get better, or darker. The special effects aren’t used to any less effect in the second act, but more subtly. The major difference though seems to be the characters, who seem to suddenly sharpen as the haunting of the manor becomes more intense and more psychologically introspective. Here Madely is able to show us a character more complex and full of penetrating conviction and conflict. There are some beautifully choreographed scenes between herself and Belcher here that are played by both with perfect poise and balance bringing us through a dark theatrical tunnel exploring all the difficult sexual tension of the novella and hurling us towards a pathos filled finale that preserves the ambiguities of the source text but also shows us the frighteningly close proximity between righteousness and depravity, zealotry and corruption.
In the end, this production brings the story past simple horror and into a realm full of unresolved moral complexities. It is likely to stir the sensibilities into a mess of emotional entrails and therefore great theatre.
The Turn of the Screw in on at the Almeida until 16 March. Box Office 02073594404 or book online at www.almeida.co.uk.