The Turn of the Screw ****


The Turn of the Screw

Underbelly, Cowgate, v61

11.00 (ends 26 August)

**** (4 stars)

In 1898 Collier’s Magazine published the first part of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw. Its subsequent influence on fiction in many forms – books, films, plays, and even an opera – has been profound. Here it is brought chillingly to life by Noel and Antonia of Box Tale Soup – a pertinent warning is given to those of a nervous disposition before the show starts: I would advise coming with someone comforting or bringing your favourite teddy to clutch in the scariest moments….

This is a brilliant presentation of a classic horror story. A young woman accepts the post of governess to two children who live on the remote country estate belonging to their uncle, who is their guardian. The Governess [whose name we never know] is entirely bewitched by the handsome young man who interviews her, and readily accepts the unusual condition of her employment: that she must never, under any circumstances, contact him, but herself deal with everything that arises. She arrives at Bly and is enchanted with the idyllic setting and the angelic behaviour of Flora, the younger of the two children in her charge. Master Miles arrives from school a couple of days later: when he is followed by a letter from that school saying they are unable to accept him back as a pupil, she is unable to believe he could have done something terrible enough to warrant banishment – his equally angelic countenance and behaviour make it seem impossible.

Strolling in the garden one evening, the Governess is startled to see a man at the top of the old square tower: he is regarding her intently, and she finds this very disturbing. The housekeeper, Mrs Grose, is quick to reassure her that it must have been one of the local people, who are able to access the tower, but cannot get into the house. Mrs Grose has shared the Governess’s bewilderment at Miles’ dismissal from school: she now answers questions about the previous governess somewhat elliptically – ‘she went away and never came back’. As the tale progresses, the tension and horror mount, and the Governess learns more and more about the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and the mysterious Peter Quint, the master’s valet, who also died in mysterious circumstances. The Governess is convinced that she sees both of them, that they are a threat to her and the children, and that Miles and Flora, although they say nothing about it, are also able to see this unearthly pair.

The novella does a good job of creating great uncertainty in the reader: are these ghosts ‘real’, are they really a threat to the Governess and her charges – or is the whole situation a figment in the increasingly hysterical imagination of a neurotic young woman? Britten’s opera is definitely on the side of ‘it’s all real’ – and so is this adaptation, with Antonia unravelling splendidly under the horror of her situation, but determined to the last to do her utmost to save the children from what she regards as demonic powers. Noel does a splendid job of being the initially friendly but increasingly flustered housekeeper and the two angelic children [more of Box Tale Soup’s splendid puppets] and, while moving the set around, creates from the start a threatening atmosphere, with veiled glances, insolent stares and meaningful looks, until he finally appears as Peter Quint and then, with spine-chilling effect, under Miss Jessel’s long black veil. .

The set is, as ever, simple – screens moved around to create different parts of the house, with some boxes and the mandatory box trunk, while the music is brilliantly chosen to ratchet up the increasing tension notch by notch to near-screaming point.

This is yet another triumph from Box Tale Soup, which is nearly sold out every day – make sure you don’t miss it!

Mary Woodward