[The following contains spoilers.]
If one wants to bring a good Victorian ghost story to the stage, Susan Hill/ Stephen Mallatratt’s “The Woman in Black” is probably the easiest option, once you have turned up your replica log fire to “roaring.” Yet the playwright Benjamin Henson last year plumped for Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898): a uniquely radical and exhilarating work of modernistic fiction and also a little bit of a Victorian ghost story as well. With small children as main characters and most of the story determined by an unreliable narrator’s possibly-psychotic unreliability, The Turn of the Screw does not lend itself to the stage. It takes ambition to attempt bringing such an unpromising corpse to life, and it is a considerable achievement that, once up, it proves so nimble on its feet.
Henson’s play was first staged in New Zealand but HookHitch theatre have now brought it to the Fringe and the Zoo Southside. The dangers of relying upon young actors, and the embarrassment of making adult actors play children, are avoided by casting Cabbage Patch dolls as the children of the piece, Miles and Flora. In this The Turn of the Screw the ghosts have no monopoly over supplying the frights; there is competition not only from the play’s increasingly unhinged protagonist, but also from these fearsome little dolls.
With three actors at times coordinating their little paws and feet, the dolls seem to flow about the stage as smoothly as ink. Miles’ reedy petulant voice will make your hair stand on end. You should keep an eye on these dolls – it would not be remotely a surprise to look down half way through the play and find them both sinking their teeth into your legs.
Of course, these dolls are most frightening because their governess – who is at first played with a goody gumdrops relish by Laura Trundle – cannot tell what they can see and what is going on in their Cabbage Patch brains. This play is admirably faithful to James’ original novella, but it could do more with the flickering shadow of paedophilia which is shed by the story. The governess may fear that the children are “lost” or even wicked because they have been sexually abused. That she herself is portrayed as crippled and blinded at the end of her tale hints that she may have been savagely punished for her actions. It would be highly convenient or even profitable for Miles’ legal guardian (Alex Hooper) if his nephew was killed by an unstable governess, and the guardian is here evoked with the necessary inscrutability.
Yet the figure of a teacher who has no authority and cannot control the children in her care may have little ambiguity for modern audiences. The inability of hesitating carers to protect vulnerable children from abuse is a theme which is hardly less relevant to today than to the Victorian world of abandoned orphans. If it begins with a ghost story and some rather alarming dolls, “The Turn of the Screw” cannot avoid approaching genuinely darker places.