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The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw
Writer: Richard Hilliar
Director: Richard Hilliar
Seymour Centre
July 26 – August 12, 2023

Richard Hilliar’s stage adaptation of Henry James’s much-debated novella The Turn of the Screw delights in presenting a range of Gothic horror elements while giving James’s apparent theme a more contemporary perspective. At the same time, Hilliar endeavours to maintain the famous Jamesian ambiguity which refuses a definitive interpretation.

The story and setting are essential ingredients of the Gothic genre. An anxious governess (Lucy Lock), daughter of a parson, is employed by an emotionally impaired privileged male to take charge of his dead brother’s two children and is immediately transported to a gloomy mansion in a remote location. Her only adult company is a garrulous housekeeper Mrs Grose (Martelle Hammer). Her employer, termed The Master (Harry Reid), leaves the children’s welfare entirely in her hands, refusing any further involvement in their upbringing.

The elaborate stage setting (Hamish Elliot) features a heavily panelled interior with dim and often ghostly lighting, flickering lamps, extinguished candles, mysteriously banging doors and loud sobbing and footsteps within. The set includes a miniature replica of the house’s façade which later appears enlarged in a darkened doorway suggesting the heavy and constrictive weight of the past on the present. As typical of the genre, many of the scenes take place at night, and water plants lining the edge of the stage evoke the possibly dangerous presence of a lake.

The two children, tantrum-prone Flora (Kim Clifton) and over-wrought Miles (Jack Richardson) unexpectedly and mysteriously expelled from school, are strangely precocious and given to worrying secret games in a house of many rooms. Their uncertain governess has little control over them and either perceives or imagines their corruption by former employees of the Master, her impressions fuelled by the tongue-wagging and probably alcoholic Mrs Grose. Is the governess deluded or are the children possessed?

Lock performs the difficult role of the governess well. In her opening interview with the rakish, callous Master her manner is fraught. Educated and a parson’s daughter, she is “a lady”, yet she is a lowly employee – as Miles later points out – powerless but in a role where she is expected to exert authority.  Her attempts to relate to the demanding Flora are humiliating. Is it possible to befriend a child who has power over her? Does she have an ally in the apparently kindly Mrs Grose who may have her own reasons for further destabilising the governess’s position in the household.

From the moment the play opens a melodramatic but still unnerving soundtrack (Chrysoulla Markoulli) creates unease and, throughout, lighting is used to effectively instil panic (Ryan McDonald). While there are funny moments in which it seems the genre is being spoofed, each of the characters has sufficient depth to give them interest. However, at the same time, the last-minute attempt to maintain the essential ambiguity of the James story is a little too pat.

The title refers to the extortion of confession through torture and Hilliar’s adaptation answers this question from the vantage point of our present understanding of trauma.

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