Friday, 1 February 2013

The Turn of the Screw - review

Written by: R. J. Brown

Almeida Theatre, London

In 1898, Henry James published an intense psychological tale of terror that would become a staple in the gothic establishment, made up of a distinct blend of supernatural ambiguity and sexual repression. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation however, currently running at the Almedia Theatre and co-produced by Hammer Theatre of Horror, lacks any of this distinction. It staggers in an indulgent verbosity that can border on the tedious as much as it can be strikingly enthralling.

Photo: Nobby Clark
Featuring a naïve governess and two children being haunted by the ghosts of an old mansion’s previous occupants, the story’s claustrophobic setting would appear an ideal first theatrical venture for Hammer, and a perfect fit to the intimate set-up of the Almeida. The innovative Lenkiewicz had chilling material to adapt, and talented director Lindsay Posner had a fitting space in which to construct terror. Both should be applauded for their bravery and ambition, but despite their efforts and some genuinely solid theatrical craftsmanship from illusionist Scott Penrose, the production just seemed to miss the mark. Long-windedness and a nagging unrefined feeling hindered a rare opportunity to not only disturb an audience, but also to scrutinize moral orthodoxy.

The opening scene, in which Sackville (Orlando Wells) discusses with the Governess (Anna Madeley) the role she is about to undertake at his country mansion, fails to capture the tension or allure required for the prologue to ignite. This was probably due to the exaggerated upper-class demeanour of Sackville, who, despite only appearing once, seemed to exist purely as a narrative device.

Photo: Nobby Clark
Madeley captures the contradiction of the Governess’s stern yet entirely fragile demeanour quite effectively. Gemma Jones supports her with a solid performance as Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, although the writing perhaps does not flesh out this character enough. Then enter Miles and Flora, the relentlessly irritating and consistently unvarying children. Clearly, Laurence Belcher and Emilia Jones are both very capable performers with bright futures, but as the dark centre of the story, they hover between a certain kind of precociousness and a lack of involvement in the essential erotic effusion.

Scary things then happen, and for the most part are well executed, as is the case of the ghost’s appearance in a bed, or of a floating piece of chalk. On the other hand, the ghost’s manifestation on a tower upstage was almost entirely obscured from my vision, despite being in the front row. My view was once again obstructed in the final few moments. I really could not tell you how the play ended, as all I was able to see of the Governess and Miles’s seeming descent into madness was the back of the actors, writhing about on a sofa.

This version of The Turn of the Screw, like any good theatrical horror, should make it socially acceptable for us to purge our anxieties and confront our darker consciousness in a cathartic way. Instead, the audience must struggle to see the stage, and must endure persistent clunky pacing. The play sets an ambience of confusion and awkwardness that lingers for some time afterwards.

This production runs until 16th March 2013.
@AlmeidaTheatre @hammerfilms 

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