Theatre review: The Turn of the Screw, Seymour Centre

An homage and a modern stage version of Henry James' famous ghost story.

The program promises that this five-hander is ‘a creeping and malevolent exploration of the way the crimes of the past poison long into the future’ and, pleasingly, the show delivers.

The Turn of the Screw is based on the novella by Henry James and, in this instance, has been adapted for the stage by writer/director Richard Hilliar. A young woman is sent to an isolated country estate, newly employed as a governess for two children, Miles and Flora. The governess comes to know the children who are, at least at first, charming if a little over-familiar. As the story unfolds, the governess harbours a growing suspicion that they, and the estate that surrounds them, are haunted by past events. 

It’s an intimate stage, saturated by designer Hamish Eliot’s unapologetic foray into drawing room-noir. Degraded, splintering and dirt-infused parquetry spills dolefully over the edge at the front of stage, while the suggestion of sinewy, blackened vines grows out of the gloom overhead, and over the tops of polished, wooden interior walls. Eight dainty narrow sconce lights that are prone to flickering line the room and suggested halls either side.

The set is used to great advantage and blackouts between scenes are refreshingly replaced by shuddering and dimly-lit, wordless interactions and hasty goings-on as set pieces and props get necessarily moved around. These shadowy moments, like half-finished sentences help drive the tension towards the work’s climax.

For only two reasons the detailed set may be too much, the first being a choice to include an elaborate dolls’ house, internally lit, that remains on the side of the stage for all of Act One. It is a distractingly beautiful copy of the estate house and appears to serve no purpose. The second, is a questionable directorial choice of a complete lack of furniture throughout Act Two.

Presented by Tooth and Sinew and Seymour Centre, this is refreshing look at horror for the stage, a feat not easy to pull off in 2023, in an intimate venue with the audience so close to the action.

But The Turn of the Screw is happily more than a romp among 20th century theatre tropes, thanks to delightfully compelling performances by a cast who clearly enjoy their roles and lashings of dark wooden panelling and mood lighting from lighting designer Ryan McDonald. 

This is an enjoyable evening of theatre that scurries along at an evermore tension-filled pace. The Turn of the Screw is a well-executed question mark. Should we allow our own instincts to guide us, even when they are perhaps logic defying? Flora and Miles’ uncle (played by Harry Reid) warns in the opening scene ‘I have many vices and self-delusion isn’t one of them’ and, from the beginning, we are drawn into an insular, untrustworthy, brown veneered world by this talented team of creatives.

Composer Chrysoulla Markoulli’s score is excellent, as are the ensemble performances: brave, fragile Lucy Lock as the unfortunate governess, Kim Clifton as the annoyingly precocious Flora, Martelle Hammer as vowel-rolling, passionately plaintive Mrs Grose, and pre-teen Miles played by Jack Richardson. Richardson does a remarkably unsettling job as a man, playing a boy, who is playing at manhood. The action is never boring.

Read: Event review: Gertrude Street Projection Festival, Melbourne

Described by its director as ‘simultaneously a faithful adaptation and modern reinterpretation’ and as an evening of theatrical entertainment, the piece takes on a lot – child abuse, unrequited love (spoiler) and incest, and still manages to keep things all wrapped up neatly in the same palatable, coy parcel. The Turn of the Screw is a playful soup of indecision and supposition that is deliciously delivered with professionalism and old-school relish. 

What’s not to love?

The Turn of the Screw

Seymour Theatre, Sydney
Writer: Richard Hilliar (after Henry James) 
Director Richard Hilliar 
Producer: Nicole Wineberg 
Set Designer: Hamish Eliot 
Lighting Designer: Ryan McDonald 

Composer and Sound Designer: Chrysoulla Markoulli
Costume Designer: Angela Doherty 
Cast: Kim Clifton, Martelle Hammer, Lucy Lock, Harry Reid and Jack Richardson

Tickets: $33-$49

The Turn of the Screw will be performed until 12 August 2023.

Emma Bedford works as an operations manager for dplr, a production, technical, and event management company based in Sydney. Emma’s background is production management, logistics and access. Her other love is audio description services, she describes theatre, exhibitions, events and all things visual for patrons who are blind or partially sighted. Art is for everyone.