Turn of the Screw: Fails to twist

Aenigma Theatre is producing Turn of the Screw at Studio 15

If you want to scare me, lull me first. (Photo of Sara Roa and David Bloom by Javier R. Sotres)

There’s too much too soon.

From the get-go, we know things are going to be creepy. In the story, which playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has adapted from Henry James’s 1898 novella, a young governess accepts a position from an eccentric Londoner: she will journey to Bly, the Londoner’s isolated estate, and care for his young niece and nephew, whose parents have died. The master, as he is called, has no interest in his charges and specifically tells the nameless governess that she must not bother him with any problems she encounters. 

At Bly, she meets the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and young Flora, who is mute in Hatcher’s adaptation, which allows two actors to tell the story, even when there are three characters onstage. Miles, Flora’s ten-year-old big brother, arrives shortly thereafter, having been expelled from school for “unspeakable” behaviour. 

The sexual undercurrents are so strong they’re like an underground river. The virginal governess imagines that she will marry the imperious master. And she soon finds out that Miss Jessel, the governess who preceded her, had an affair with the master’s valet, Peter Quint. That relationship ended in pregnancy and double suicide. 

Then the governess starts to see Jessel and Quint’s ghosts — or maybe she just starts to go nuts. 

For this kind of storytelling to work, there has to be a sense of escalation and, as with any storytelling, the build needs variety. 

In this production, director Tanya Mathivanan strikes out on both counts. Under Mathivanan’s direction, the governess (Sarah Roa) is wildly reactive — twitching with fear and sexually charged — from the moment we meet her in her job interview with the master. When he asks her if she has an aversion to something, she thinks he’s asking if she’s a virgin and she practically passes out. This makes her look crazy right off the bat and the sexual subtext is so obvious that there’s little left for the audience to discover. 

Having explicitly established the notes of fear and sexual repression, Mathivanan rides them relentlessly for the show’s 80-minute duration. Everything is all fraught all the time — including Scott Zechner’s quivering sound design and Roa’s quivering performance. Because the show keeps saying, “I’m spooky! I’m so spooky!”, it never really is: because it never lulls you into a sense of complacency, it’s never surprising. 

Within this unfortunate framework, the actors fare remarkably well. Although Mathivanan’s direction doesn’t give her a lot of room for variety or development, moment to moment, Roa credibly inhabits the emotional life of the governess. And there’s an underlying vulnerability to her performance. 

David Bloom plays all of the other characters, which means that his assignment is more fun. Without overstatement, he switches convincingly from the canny Mrs. Grose to the innocent yet sinister Miles. 

With its floating staircase to nowhere and strangely odious armchair — it feels like a patriarchal throne — Kimira Bhikam’s set design is an elegant response to the spare style of Hatcher’s script. 

But I was bored. 

THE TURN OF THE SCREW By Jeffrey Hatcher, adapted from the novella by Henry James. Directed by Tanya Mathivanan. An Aenigma Theatre production at Studio 16 on Wednesday, November 6. Continues until November 10. Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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