Review by Bella Wellstead
A governess is sent to the country to care for a sweet young girl and her bumptious brother. She arrives to discover that the young Miles and Flora are not so delightful and virtuous after all. That a ghostly figure loiters in the shadows, pulling their strings and snickering into their delicate ears.
Based on the 1898 novella by Henry James, Richard Hilliar’s The Turn of the Screw is sublime. It effortlessly blurs the boundaries between the tangible and the imagined, leaving spectres and suggestions to linger in its many silences.
Both Hilliar’s writing and direction are highly thoughtful and meticulous. The production pays heed to the novella’s prudish Victorian sensibilities whilst carefully intimating the presumption of sexual exploitation that runs beneath it. It transforms the literary discourse at the heart of the various analyses of The Turn of the Screw. Like James’, Hilliar’s ghosts represent the intermingling of sexuality and corruption. The audience is plunged into the governess’ experience of the spectres – whether they exist in reality or as a figment of her sexually repressed imagination is inconsequential. Their presence troublingly implicates childhood sexual trauma in a story that has historically ghosted any discussion of it.
As such, The Turn of the Screw unnerves more than it frightens. Sudden bangs, faces illuminated from the shadows, and the screams of the governess punctuate the percolating undercurrent of dread.
Martelle Hammer dazzles as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Her jovial manner is delightful, her irreverence gratifying, and she heartens with her tender superstition.
Lucy Lock is the perfect Governess, adeptly balancing the character’s naivete and authority. Her straight back and high-held head dominate the stage – especially as she towers above her co-stars. At the same time, her wide, darting eyes expose her youth and vulnerability. This woman is ill-equipped to protect Miles and Flora, but she cares too deeply for them to let them slip away.
Harry Reid is skillfully stony as he doubles as the children’s uninterested uncle and the ghoulish Peter Quint. His smarmy sneer is delightfully unlikeable and his patriarchal insistence acts as a warning.
Kim Clifton has a magnificently shrill juvenility as Flora – the youngest of the Governess’ charges. She is vibrant as she flitters across the stage. At the same time, her doll-like pliability debilitates her. She is as bold and energetic as she is vulnerable and weak.
Jack Richardson plays Flora’s chilling older brother Miles. A willful boy with a wicked smile and a fierce sense of independence, Miles flicks consistently from charming to disarming to alarming. His translucent pallor and dark, circled eyes enhance the impact of his unsettling giggles and outbursts of masculine aggression.
Angela Doherty’s costume design adroitly situates the production within the Victorian era. The silhouette and detail of each costume contribute subtly yet effectively to characters’ personalities.
Chrysoulla Markoulli’s sound design sets the tone magnificently, incorporating dreadful drones alongside the disconcerting chatter of hushed voices.
Lighting design by Ryan McDonald is delectable – a full, and carefully planned, gourmet meal of flickering lamplight, green-tinted haze, and a window frame silhouette thrown starkly against the floor. The darkness at the edges of the stage draws the audience into the manor and tantalizes them with what mysteries may lurk beyond.
This disquieting isolation results from a harmonious collaboration between McDonald and set designer Hamish Elliot. The Turn of the Screw takes place in a rich, dark, wood-panelled room with a severe parquetry floor. At either side stands an arched window, the leftmost of which transforms into a stove and the rightmost of which becomes a door as characters move through different rooms in the manor. Frosted glass lampshades in the shape of upturned tulips line the walls. A doll’s house with several tiny, lit-up windows lingers around a corner. However, all is not grand and pristine. Blackened, blistered scars stretch upwards from the wood panelling and parquetry tiles protrude towards the audience. This magnificent set appears to be crumbling into darkness before our very eyes.
Richard Hilliar’s The Turn of the Screw takes an insightful and engaging approach to interpreting James’ literary classic. Every element of this production is meticulously thought-out and elegantly cohesive, making for an excellent night at the theatre.
Image Credit: Phil Erbacher