In his one-act-and-two-actor adaptation of Henry James’s Gothic horror novella The Turn of the Screw, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher leaves many of his characters to the audience’s imagination and, in the recent Aenigma Theatre production, to the remarkable talent and expertise of actor David Bloom.
Tanya Mathivanan’s imaginative direction, coupled with Kimira Bhikum’s spectacular set that, for the most part, hangs haphazardly overhead, with a suspended staircase that leads to imaginary second-floor bedrooms, together create a remote country manor where two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, live in the current charge of housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Both ten-year-old Miles and mature Mrs. Grose are played by Bloom, who oozes seamlessly between the two, meanwhile relating to an invisible little Flora and the family’s newly arrived young Governess played by the only other actor, Sarah Roa.
Bloom’s extensive range broadens to include equally well -rounded characters, from the opening Narrator to the rich Uncle who employs the naive Governess as a replacement for her predecessor Miss Jessel. (Jessel recently died, perhaps at her hand because of an unborn bastard fathered by the evil valet Peter Quint, also recently deceased.) Bloom even provides most of the mysterious noises off with a subtle wit that contributes to, rather than detracts from the action.
His varied character studies contrast that of Sarah Roa’s unnamed Governess. Although the script calls for histrionics, there are times when Roa could afford to explore different avenues to express her terror. For instance, terror can render one speechless, paralyzed, desperate to flee, but petrified to a standstill. Varying responses to the ghostly apparitions of Jessel and Quint, real or imagined, would perhaps illustrate different aspects of the vulnerability of a lonely middle-class woman in her first professional employment, overseeing two children affected by the recent death of both parents and two household servants.
Whether or not the hauntings by these two servants are real, is arguable and, to an extent, irrelevant. Either way, their impact on the mind of the Governess is extreme and the results, even more so. The underlying current of sexuality, often a by-product of trauma, is present throughout. The fact that the Governess is smitten by her charismatic London-based employer adds to the tension. She must resist the temptation to acquaint him with her horrors for fear of disobeying his instruction to maintain a distance between the manor household and himself. She does not wish to appear weak-minded and frivolous.
Small wonder that so many have plumbed the depths of Henry James’s work. The Turn of the Screw has been made into countless movies and plays in various formats with equally varying casts. Benjamin Britten even turned it into an opera.
Considering James wrote the original to be published as a serial in Colliers Weekly Magazine in 1898 and Hatcher’s adaptation comes almost a century afterwards, the text remains relevant. However, all directors and actors should heed the author’s note: only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough, and his own experience, imagination, sympathy and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
James’s note applies in this instance, where the delicate balance between melodrama and true horror is occasionally missed. But on the whole, Aenigma Theatre’s production is a dance – a ballet at times and a whirling dervish at others – in a setting of mobiles that reflect the twists and turns of a rootless mind. It deserves further exploration and a longer run.
The Turn of the Screw, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the novel by Henry James. Directed by Tanya Mathivanan. An Aenigma Theatre production. No further performances. Visit aenigmatheatre.com for more information.