Friday, 23 March 2018


                     "I always want to know the things one shouldn't do."
                     "So as to do them?" asked her aunt.
                     "So as to choose." said Isabel.

                                 Henry James, Portrait of a Lady

Henry James' novella 'The Turn of the Screw' is a most ambiguous piece of work, beloved of the English Literature establishment perhaps precisely because it can be interpreted in so many different ways. Britten's operatic version, which I saw most recently last year in an excellent chamber production, leans one way by giving singing roles to both Quint and Miss Jessel, and the result is a supernatural masterpiece which leave open the possibilities that ghosts are real or alternatively that either the governess or the children are delusional. Ambiguity is retained.

I have been to see a stage adaptation which has moved quite firmly in the other direction. Here it is quite clear that the governess is suffering from a temporary, adolescent hysteria brought on by the abrupt change from sheltered family life in a parsonage to being alone in the presence of the children's uncle. The children's behaviour is no more than, well, childish behaviour (although very well acted by the adults playing them). The whole class issue of the futility of Quint, and indeed the governess, imagining that they can rise above their station, is reduced to jealousy and backbiting among servants, and, perhaps recognising that modern audiences are more broad-minded than Victorian ones, the nature of the relationship between the valet and the previous governess is portrayed explicitly and then never mentioned again. The denouement rather reminded me of Joseph Heller's 'Something Happened'.

As you can tell, I wasn't terribly enthused. I suspect many of the decisions related to a desire to limit the size of the cast - one never saw the non-speaking Quint or the non-speaking cloaked and veiled figure of Jessel on stage at the same time - and this idea of things being done to a cost leads on nicely to another possible interpretation of the piece for the world in which we currently live. This is - very aptly post-Carillion, post-Grenfel, post-Virgin East Coast, post-lots of other things - a parable about the unworkability of outsourcing. Whatever performance criteria (don't write, don't visit, don't leave the children) are defined by the client (the uncle) cannot anticipate every circumstance (ghosts, madness) and will inevitably lead to failure (I won't spoil the ending for you, but as it was turned into an opera you know what to expect).

No comments:

Post a Comment