Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Modern interpretation makes drama no less heart-stopping

Modern interpretation makes drama no less heart-stopping

Turn of the Screw | Oxford Playhouse | Tuesday, June 11

IF my cardiologist knew I was going to this latest interpretation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw she might have stepped in to stop it — and with good reason because my heart was in my mouth more than once.

It grabs you from the beginning with Janet Dibley’s isolated governess looking terrified as an unmounted rocking horse speeds faster and faster.

It keeps on grabbing after that and there’s never a moment when you can truly sit back and be at ease.

It’s an enduring tale and I should have known better because I’ve seen it in most of its forms in the last 60 years — the 1961 film The Innocents, James’s original novella, the BBC adaptation and the excellent dramatisation of The Innocents by HAODS two years ago.

The story, very briefly, is of a young governess sent to look after two children in a remote mansion.

When she gets there she finds them to be possessed by the spirits of her late predecessor and her below-stairs lover.

Here we go again, then — I should know what’s coming, but it still fills me with horror each time. I have never seen it done quite so melodramatically but it did originate in Victorian times when that style was at its height.

Modern stage techniques are used to drive home the melodrama even more effectively — exquisitely timed simultaneous light and sound effects mean you can never really sit back and pretend not to be scared, no matter how well you know the story.

And this production asks us how well do we really know the story. Up until now we have been prepared to accept the world we thought was created by James of a ghostly couple inhabiting the living bodies of a brother and sister.

But adaptor Tim Luscombe and director Daniel Buckroyd give us a 21st century slant with the filter of psychoanalysis.

Is this really what the governess experienced, or was it the hysteria of a lonely, isolated woman? Nice twist — although the evidence of the text suggests the original perception is probably accurate.

Dibley, a featured actress in countless TV series and soaps, chooses to play this robustly throughout; it’s a solid, workmanlike performance and she maintains a high energy for the duration of the play, during which she is ever present on stage.

The staging is dark and gothic as befits such a suspense-laden piece. Due deference is given to its time, but this is a 21st century production and it benefits from it.

Now, time to gulp down another blood pressure pill and hope my cardiologist is looking the other way.

Until Saturday.

Mike Rowbottom

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