By Henry James, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Directed by Lindsay Posner
Venue: Almeida Theatre
Date: Wednesday 13th February 2013
This story has two main directions, the psychological and the supernatural; this production took the supernatural path and did it reasonably well. The effects were good, ranging from a face appearing at the window in a sudden flash of light and papers flicked off a desk to chalk writing by itself on the blackboard and Quint joining the Governess in bed. There was a fair amount of tension, although it wasn’t maintained for the whole performance; I certainly won’t be losing any sleep.
It took a while to set up the story. The opening scene was set in Sackville’s office, where he was interviewing a young woman for the post of governess to his deceased sister’s two children. He was a strange man; he clearly liked his pleasures, and having travelled in the East he was also able to introduce ideas such as people having a predetermined destiny and the return of a soul. Sometimes he seemed to be making a pass at the woman and at others he wasn’t interested – most peculiar. The Governess came across as a bit nervy, but of the two I’d have said Sackville was the one to steer clear of.
At Bly, Mrs Grose (Gemma Jones) was the kindly, reliable sort, and there was just enough hesitation in her manner to indicate some unseen trouble. Flora was the first of the children we met; she was cute and bright with a fondness for creepy-crawlies but nothing out of the ordinary for that time and place, apart from her strange foreknowledge that her brother Miles would be arriving that day, a week before the end of term.
We never learned the full reason for Miles being expelled – it was couched in general terms – but the young man who arrived soon after Flora’s departure seemed perfectly normal, and with good manners to boot. He was a bit precocious, but that can happen with the privately-educated sons of the wealthy. The childrens’ behaviour did become stranger, and with the appearance of the ghosts it was evident that they were both under some kind of spell.
The interval came after the first appearances of Quint in the flashes of lightning from a sudden storm. The housekeeper recognised the Governess’s description of the man, and just as she was telling the Governess that he was dead, the children burst into the room, laughing. Creepy. (I admit to holding onto Steve’s arm a number of times during the performance – this was one of them.)
More appearances occurred in the second half, with the children clearly being affected by them and Mrs Grose, despite seeing nothing herself, evidently believing they were happening. The Governess’s religious fervour was starting to emerge, and her belief that the children had to be saved from evil at all costs was becoming as scary as the apparitions. With matters coming to a head, Flora was taken away by Mrs Grose, leaving the Governess to confront Miles in a last attempt to force him to turn from the dark side by confessing what had got him expelled from school. He wouldn’t do it, and with Quint leering at them through the window, the Governess had to take desperate measures to ‘save’ her charge.
The ending was less gripping than I would have expected, and from some of the comments I heard, others weren’t clear what had happened. I felt this adaptation hadn’t quite found the right balance; the supernatural stuff just isn’t as powerful on stage nowadays without creating a tense atmosphere, and that aspect was underwritten for me. There was too much normality, and the Governess in particular was a blank slate, making it hard to relate to her experiences. There were hints of her background, but not enough to make a difference, and the effects, while good, were not enough on their own to keep the tension going.
The set worked reasonably well. They used a circular stage with a revolve which had a wall across it, making it easier to change to different locations – the office, drawing-room, schoolroom, etc. In a curve round the back and above the stage were some windows and broken masonry, suggesting the old country house setting. The lake was created by a little jetty with a boat tied to it, backed by some tall grasses. The costumes looked appropriate for period and class, as far as I could tell.
Although the revolve usually helps with quick changes to the set, I found the changes this time were a little slower than I expected, and that made the production seem bitty, which contributed to the reduced tension. The performances were fine, but I probably wouldn’t see this adaptation again without good reason.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me
Adaptation of this horrid tale by any writer is a hard task. My feeling is that the Henry James story works precisely because of what is NOt there in the writing. So, the reader is manipulated into becoming almost like a collaborator. The Britten opera also seems to have a similar effect, there being as many different interpretations as there are viewers; all of them deeply unpleasant.