Hauntingly Effective [by James Wenley]
With so much of the Fringe being comedy orientated, it was very refreshing to take a walk on the Gothic side late on Monday night. Benjamin Henson intelligently adapts and directs this unsettling stage version of Henry James’ 1897 novella The Turn of the Screw.
A white gowned governess (Philippa Johnson) is charged with looking after orphaned children Flora and Miles. She stands out in the world of the country house where all other performers are veiled and draped in black –are they in mourning for the past deaths in the house? Or pre-mourning for events that are yet to come? The staff (Brenda Kendall and Lisa Sorenson) are secretive, and the governess begins to suspect the grounds are haunted by her “young and pretty” predecessor Miss Jessel, and a former employee called Peter Quint. “Things have happened here” we are mysteriously told. The Governess vows to keep the children safe.
There is a real palpable atmosphere of dread in the theatre. Janet Kirwan’s effective dim light casts eerie glows across the actor’s faces and the Basement’s brick walls, and Polly Sussex plays a live score on the cello throughout, underscoring the dramatic and creepy moments. The use of selections from Henry James’ masterful text heightens the mood further. The Basement becomes a claustrophobic environment.
This atmosphere grows through the show, though sometimes it falters, some moments not quite working. The text does a lot of work, and often we rely on the exposition and explanations to explain an action that has just happened.
A genius decision in this production is to bring the children Flora and Miles to life through puppetry. Puppets seem to have well and truly taken over the Fringe and Mamma Festival with Alvin Sputnik, Paper Sky, and the Vietnamese Water Puppets all displaying this form. But whereas these shows used them in a fun and delightful way, here we are reminded that there is something very creepy indeed about bringing an inanimate object to life.
The puppets (designed by Bronwyn Bent) are simple paper machete with sticks for body parts layered with white cloth. The faces are neutral, with just a hint of colour. Puppeteers Jordan Mooney and Virginia Frankovich coax very effective performances out of the puppets. Virginia is spirited with focused intensity, and performs the character with her body too. Mooney delivers as Miles, and there is something quite disconcerting about hearing a man’s voice come out of a boy puppet. They play well against Philippa’s affectionate and protective Governess.
The puppets are vulnerable, fragile, and objects to be manipulated. This is a nice parallel to some of the themes of the story, which darkly hints that the children had unspeakable things done to them. The device absolutely works.
Due to its ambiguity, academics love analysing James’ text and debating the nature of the ghosts in the story. There have been many debates as to whether the ghosts are a reality, or whether it is all inside the Governess’ head. This play keeps it open too, although Philippa’s performance has many hints she may be going crazy.
Director Benjamin Henson is new to Auckland, and with The Turn of the Screw he has announced he is a director to watch. I await his next work with great interest.
The Turn of the Screw plays as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival at the Basement Theatre until 13th March.
More information on the Auckland Fringe Website.