By Henry James, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Almeida Theatre, Islington, London, until March 16, 2013
The Almeida Theatre, in an interesting first foray into co-production with the legendary horror film makers Hammer, has produced a chilling crowd pleaser in this confidently elegant stage adaptation of Henry James’ famous Gothic novella.
The great haunted-house story has been reimagined now countless times, most famously in Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera, the 1961 movie The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr and the 2001 chiller The Others starring Nicole Kidman. The adapter here is playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, famed for her plays Her Naked Skin and The Night Season.
It’s a faithful rendering of the much loved story of a young Governess (Anna Madeley) in Victorian England who is hired by the suave, patrician figure Mr Sackville (Orlando Wells), to take charge of his nephew and niece following the death of their parents. Currently being cared for by the housekeeper Mrs Grose (Gemma Jones), the Governess is given full reign as he does not want any further communications about them. On arriving at the gloomy country mansion, she initially takes a shine to her charges, but after a series of frightening apparitions – which seem to be visible only to her – she begins to suspect that all is not well with the children and that they might be deliberately playing with her mind. She learns that the ghosts are that of her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and the sinister Peter Quint, a fellow employee with whom she had a shocking affair, leading to their deaths. Having spent much time with the children she becomes convinced that the malevolent duo is now controlling them from beyond the grave.
Critical debate has raged on about the reality of the ghosts versus the sanity of the Governess, and director Lindsay Posner wisely leaves us guessing. He also keeps the pace taut throughout, except for an unnecessary interval. Peter McKintosh’s atmospheric and expansive sets and Tim Mitchell’s ingenious lighting superbly evoke the sinister mood and the many shocks.
Jones is gloriously strait-laced as the housekeeper and Madeley is touchingly compelling as a woman losing her mind but clinging to the straws of her religious conviction for some constancy. The real stars, however, are the children, with Emilia Jones perkily confident as Flora – managing to make you wonder if she really is the power in the relationship – and Laurence Belcher creepily precocious as Miles. He is rather old (and tall) for the part, and here Lenkiewicz makes explicit his sexual overtures to the Governess, a move which is likely to divide the Jamesians.
A stage rendering of a superior chiller like this will inevitably fail to draw out the nuances in the original book, and just as great novels often make poor movies and pulp novels often make great ones, there is the danger of reducing the piece to a sequence of bumpy incidents. The play certainly startles (and the more susceptible in the audience do jump out of their skins at times), but the underlying chilling menace of the story has probably been best drawn out elsewhere.