The Turn of the Screw
nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
November 2, 2007
Jeffrey Hatcher has done the near impossible: he's managed to extinguish every chill, fright, and moment of suspense from Henry James's classic novella The Turn of the Screw. The story—considered to be one of the greatest ghost stories ever written—has inspired many adaptations for the stage and film. James wrote it with a psychological twist known today as "the unreliable narrator." The narrator is a governess who has been hired to care for two young siblings, Miles and Flora, whose parents have died. They're living at their uncle's country estate in Essex. Soon after she begins her employment she witnesses ghostly apparitions of two lovers who, when they were alive, worked at the household. She soon becomes convinced that they're using the children to reincarnate their earthly romance. Are these things true or is the narrator out of her mind? For an author to instill in readers distrust of his novel's narrator was revolutionary in the late 19th century, though today it is a well-recognized device to create suspense and mystery in theater, films, and novels...thanks to Henry James.
This particular adaptation tries to hold on to the ambiguity of the narrator's sanity. Unfortunately there is so much narration spoken by the governess/narrator, it's difficult to ever feel connected to the work. Certainly when reading a novel, it's easy to engage in the internal thoughts of characters. But characters who think out loud in theatre can be problematic. Hatcher's governess thinks too much for the stage:
When I return to my room I find upon my pillow a gift. It is a locket. Flora must have risen in the night and placed this on my bed. Inside the small cameo are two portraits, painted miniatures...
I wouldn't brush off the excessive narrative voice as simply exposition. Much of it may have been pulled directly from the novella (though slightly reworked to be in the present tense.) But this Wake Up! Marconi production was intended to be a suspenseful drama, not a dramatic reading.
The adaptation requires only two actors. Steve Cook—dressed in a Victorian suit for the entire piece—plays several roles: Miles, Mrs. Grose (the housekeeper), the children's uncle, and a narrator (yes, more narration) who appears at the beginning and at the end. He uses his posture and the volume of his voice to differentiate the roles, but fully realized characters never emerge. Melissa Pinsly, who plays the governess, fails to leave any doubt that her character is insane. Rarely does she restrain from her shrill, manic performance.
And Don K. Williams serves his actors poorly with his pallid direction. The suspense fizzles in the ceaselessly unmodulated tempo. And never did I feel the presence of Miles's sister Flora. Hatcher has made her a mute, and she is not portrayed by either of the actors, so careful movement and blocking is essential to evoke her presence. Unfortunately, a stiffly outstretched arm with a strangely contorted hand was all Williams had for the actors to usher the little girl in and usher her out.
It's easy to understand why a company like Wake Up! Marconi might choose Hatcher's adaptation--no children, two actors, and a set that requires only one chair. But I wonder, given how much is lost in the translation, if the company would have better served themselves by writing their own adaptation—one that first and foremost theatrically represents the sympathetic and complex personas of the original story. If you can't feel for the characters on stage, you're unlikely to fear for them.