The Halloween pinnacle may be coming to an end, but the spirit of the season lives on as Aenigma Theatre gets set to present Jeffrey Hatcher’s stage adaptation of the classic 19th-century Henry James ghost story The Turn of the Screw.
In this Q&A with director Tanya Mathivanan, we find out more about the play and why it remains relevant today.
This interview has been edited.
Tell us about The Turn of the Screw.
The Turn of the Screw is about a young, naïve woman, escaping a dark past, who travels to an isolated manor in the English countryside to take care of two recently orphaned children.
Things quickly take a turn, however, as she quickly becomes haunted by the malicious spectres of two recently deceased individuals: her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and the former Valet, Peter Quint, both of whom died under mysterious circumstances. The Governess eventually suspects that the horrific apparitions intend to possess the children. As she fights to save the lives and souls of her charges, however, we are left to wonder if the ghosts are real or merely a product of her deteriorating sanity.
Is this a faithful stage adaptation of Henry James’ novella?
This adaptation is very faithful to the spirit of the novel. It is certainly more streamlined and cuts out many of the side characters present in the book. The Governess, Mrs. Grose, Miles, and the uncle are still all present, along with a few surprise characters in our staging.
The most significant change would be the physical absence of Flora, the young girl that the Governess is in charge of. The character does exist within the story. However, she is not portrayed by an actor. These changes allow for a much tighter pace and fluidity of the story, which makes it much easier to translate onto the stage.
Overall though, I would say that this is one of the most faithful adaptations of novel in terms of capturing the themes that Henry James was interested in exploring, as well as the tone of the story in general.
You mentioned being drawn to the story’s themes. What are they, and what makes them as relevant today as when James first published his book?
Henry James had a particular interest in exploring issues such as oppression and abuse of power.
In The Turn of The Screw there are heavy implications that multiple characters suffered through various forms of abuse, and the consequences of the resulting trauma unfold in rather horrifying ways.
Horror has always been used to explore the social anxieties of a particular time. Part of the reason The Turn of The Screw is still so effectively unsettling, I believe, is because those issues are as prevalent today as they were in the 19th century. Trauma and cycles of abuse are universal and are things that we’re only beginning to have public conversations about.
Furthermore, anxieties surrounding female sexuality, homosexuality and sexual repression, which were common in the Victorian era, are still quite sadly a problem today. While we may have progressed socially in many ways, I think the fact that the novel continues to strike a chord with so many people over 100 years later, is highly indicative of how much more we have to progress, and how many more open, frank, and public conversations we still need to have about these topics.
Can you explain why the play is described as a “smart” ghost story?
The Turn of the Screw was one of the first novels to incorporate modern psychology into the fabric of the story.
What makes this story particularly fascinating for me is that James leaves it open to the reader/audience to decide whether the ghosts are real or not. The ambiguity in the novel was revolutionary at the time it was published, and also allowed James to use the horror genre to not only entertain people but to explore the social issues in an accessible manner.
I find it a particularly “smart” ghost story because the characters are so intelligently conceived and the story is so deceivingly simple. Despite not having explicit backstories, we are fed enough information to empathize and identify with these characters. We then embark on a psychological rollercoaster of a journey, which forces us to confront the genuine possibility that the most terrifying horrors of all are ones that are committed by people.
You also mention the horror genre is not prevalent in theatre. What are the challenges of translating the horror genre to the stage, and how do you overcome them?
The horror genre is particularly challenging to translate to the stage because, unlike its closest entertainment medium, film, you lose many of the tools that are traditionally used to scare an audience. There are no quick cuts or aggressive camera angles, and special effects can be somewhat limited on a smaller budget. Furthermore, the immediacy of theatre and the fact that it’s live already sometimes betrays a sense of artifice, which hinders the ability to scare people.
For horror to work onstage, we must instead work on evoking an arguably more difficult emotion: terror. For this particular staging, I focused on creating a sense of unease, dread, and the feeling that something is “off” from the get-go.
The design is an essential element in achieving this. The set, sound, and particularly the lighting, are all specifically designed to remove the audience’s sense of comfort and the familiar.
Furthermore, we are utilizing unconventional staging, alley style, to maintain a sense of claustrophobia and intimacy. This allows the audience to be right in the middle of the action and become part of the story themselves. I staged this play to seem like we are looking through the eyes of the Governess herself. My desire is for the audience to be haunted as much as she is.
We also worked on really delving into the more human-based, disturbing parts of the text and characters.
What do you hope audiences will walk away thinking about as they leave the theatre?
I hope the audience will walk away thinking about why this story is still so popular today, and why it still resonates with some people. I also hope that they leave the theatre debating whether the ghosts were real or not.