Last night Hobgoblin took a group of students to see the play version of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw at a local theater, and I went along. I’d read the novella in college and wrote a paper on it even, so I knew the basic story, although I’d forgotten a lot of the details. I was curious to see how they would handle the uncertainty and ambiguity of the action — was the governess crazy or was she not? Were the ghosts real?
The director chose an intriguing method of staging the story. There were only two actors, a man and a woman; the woman played the governess, of course, and the man, Tom Beckett, played the master, the children’s uncle; Miles, one of the two children the governess is charged with; and Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. He also functioned as a narrator from time to time, filling the audience in some of the background details. Flora, the other child, was played by no one; the other characters simply pretended she was there, and so turned her into a ghostly presence — or absence — on stage. The set was very simple too, only an old armchair, a spiral staircase, and wisps of smoke.
The effect was claustrophobic, in a way that suited the story perfectly. The two actors seemed to be descending into a nightmare, battling each other — even as Beckett switched into different characters — and at war within themselves too. They were stuck in a small space that never changed and where no one new ever appeared. All they could do was retreat into their minds or lash out at one another. It’s the perfect set-up for a ghost story: a creepy atmosphere, some eccentric characters, an isolated location, and no means of escape.
Beckett did a brilliant job switching from one role to another; he would change his accent, posture, and body language and transform himself from a 10-year old boy into a middle-aged housekeeper instantly.
I appreciated all this intellectually, but I must say that at times I found myself bored. I never quite lost myself in the story. I’m not sure if it simply wasn’t the right night for me to see a play — I was tired and distracted — or if there was something else going on. I wonder if The Turn of the Screw isn’t best experienced on the page after all. For me, at least, the play was both too visual and not visual enough. Seeing the governess descend into hysterics, hearing her ranting and raving, I was pushed away from the story instead of drawn into it. Something subtle and delicate from James’s novel was lost. And at the same time, I wanted more to look at. I have enjoyed plays where not much happens but people standing around and talking, but in those cases the dialogue was brilliant, and in last night’s performance, it wasn’t particularly. I suppose what I was missing was the voice of the narrator from James’s novella; it’s her voice that created the mood for me, and without it, the story lost some of its interest.
But, at any rate, even if I did get a bit bored, on some level I enjoy any experience that makes me think, which the performance certainly did. And I was thrilled to see Hobgoblin’s student Hepzibah, who is always so much fun to talk to. It was my first visit to this local theater, too, and I’ll make sure I return again soon.