The Turn of the Screw

Adapted by Patrick Prior from the story by Henry James
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
(2004)

Henry James' 1898 ghost story has been adapted for the stage many times, notably as an opera by Benjamin Britten. What makes it riveting on the page is the ambiguity of the governess' narrative: are the evil presences around her 'real', or are they projections of her repressed imagination? As readers we are left with a question, but Patrick Prior's adaptation seems on balance to sign up to the latter.

It's certainly a bold adaptation; a three-hander that replaces children and ghosts with sound effects and projected images. The absence of the two children seems odd for about five minutes, with the women petting and talking to thin air, but in fact it works very well. In the event, the verbal construction of the idealised 'angels' Miles and Flora conjures them more effectively than could most pre-pubertal actors.

Prior uses the framing device of the governess telling her story under hypnosis. The presiding doctor is a bully and a fool, but in the end it's his concluding speech, set against the actions of the seated governess behind him, that reinforce the play's impression as a study in self-deception.

The production relies heavily on loud sound effects of wailing children, a moaning, sighing woman and a rather ludicrous silhouette of the sinister ghost Peter Quint. Less would be more here, and merest whispers and vague shadows would do the trick. This heavy reliance on sound effects and the rather static staging of the first half made it feel more suitable as an adaptation for radio. But Sue Mayes' wonderful set, dominated by three huge gothic windows, not only looks beautiful but, with the aid of lighting, manages to suggest the shifting perspectives of James' story. Now opaque for the projection of images, now distortingly reflective, they reproduce the viewer's ever-changing response to the ambiguous narrative. Lighting is also used to symbolic effect, at one point projecting the governess' own shadow to suggest the evil presence in the room with her.

At the centre of this production is the performance of Shereen Ibrahim. Though perhaps too quick off the blocks in the first half, where the rapidity and excitability of her speeches doesn't allow the tale to build as effectively as it might, her energy and tone come into their own later, and she is genuinely scary in the closing scenes, adamant that she alone can save the children's souls. Laura Cox is also convincing as homely housekeeper Mrs Groce, the governess' initially sympathetic confidante. It's this character who is the touchstone for the audience's response, and our sympathy finally swings in behind her when the two women stand side-by side at the lake's edge, in their very different attempts to save little Flora.

Henry James called this tale 'a trap for the unwary', an injunction that applies equally to reader, adapter and reviewer. Patrick Prior's adaptation, and the production itself, are powerfully alert to the tale's ambiguity. However, the sound and action does ultimately seem to give weight to the suggestion that the governess' experiences arise from her repressed sexuality. A Freudian take is something we all now feel at ease with, but an unresolved question would have sent many spectators home to a sleepless night.

"The Turn of the Screw" runs until 7th February

Reviewer: Jill Sharp