If some real thought were applied to the MTC’s audio treatment of The Turn of the Screw, says Robert Reid, it could have been amazing
Ugh… and I thought that the Audio Lab’s Great Australian Speeches lacked imagination.
The second project brought to us by the Melbourne Theatre Company under the banner of Audio Lab is a dramatic reading of Henry James’s classic psychological thriller, The Turn of the Screw.
James’ classic novella is a ghost story that is perhaps most successful for its ambiguity. The story is of an unnamed governess who takes on a job in a country house raising two orphaned children, Miles and Flora. She begins to see an unfamiliar man and woman appearing around the estate, who are apparently never seen by the other people there with her. Gradually she learns the story of the previous governess, Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint, who both died under mysterious circumstances.
It’s fairly standard stuff for a haunted tale these days, but what lifts it above your average M. Night Shyamalan movie is the evenness with which James strikes the balance between “are they haunted?” and “is she neurotic?” Sadly, in the MTC’s treatment, directed by Associate Director Sarah Goodes, there is more reading than drama. The cast makes a valiant effort to bring the text to life, but their work is hampered by the decision to simply…read the book. This project is basically a highly produced audiobook.
No attempt is made to adapt the text from James’ original novella into a radio drama. Short of some atmospheric and spooky music to introduce the work (and to transition between sections) Clemence Williams’s minimal sound design adds scant body or depth to the world. Williams talks about her work on the project in an interview on the MTC site, describing it as “creating ambience designed to be barely noticed.” I’m not convinced that this is the best approach to sound design for a purely audio experience, especially one as wordy and actionless is The Turn of the Screw.
Williams also says that “the challenge and beauty of working in a purely aural world is that you are inviting the audience to imagine the visual”, which I think is true; but the invitation needs to be made more insistent. With no visual cues to guide us, the aural aspect of radio drama must step out from the shadows and become another character.
The text is delivered with the kind of calm, soft-spoken charm that Robert Menzies, as narrator for the framing device, can bring to any role. Likewise, Katherine Tonkin’s voice is pleasant and velvety as the Governess. The dialogue is given as much life as possible by the rest of the cast speaking the novella’s dialogie in various other roles. Marg Downey and Laurence Boxhall are soothing to listen to, smooth and well rounded, but the soporific pull of all these voices drags heavy on my attention, and the breathy readings everybody adopts begins to pall by the third hour.
I keep thinking there’s nothing here, aside from the original text, that grips the way a thriller should. No chill, no breathless anticipation. Rather, it starts to feel like the audio equivalent of a few too many Valium.
I really don’t want to keep being negative about this project. I was genuinely excited by its possibilities when I first heard about it. But…could they really not find a playwright to take this text to make it into a play? Would it be so expensive?
Imagine that this was an adaptation meant for stage. Would they really get four actors to sit on stage at the Lawler – it couldn’t possibly go into the Sumner – to simply read the whole book aloud? For what adds up to four hours?
I was hoping, really hoping, that this would be a more engaging and more elaborate work. I noted in my last review of the Audio Lab series that the first outing didn’t really make good use of the radio broadcast format. I felt at the time that this might be a symptom of the rush to produce new material in the sudden programming vacuum the company (like every other company) suddenly found themselves facing. The Turn of the Screw either also suffers from the same rush to broadcast or a fundamental underestimation of the affordances of radio drama.
In fact the best elements of this second project for Audio Lab are the written extras which accompany the production. Melanie Sheridan’s excellent essay on the legacy of Henry James’ work can be found here on the MTC site. Similarly, Sheridan’s interview with director Sarah Goodes about her approach to the project is more interesting than the project itself.
I refuse to believe that this is the best Melbourne Theatre Company can do. At best, these are first draft ideas. If these projects were given anything more than a few minutes’ consideration and attention in their conception, they could be amazing. As it is, they feel like shoe-string projects rushed out to the public in a desperate attempt to remain relevant under lockdown. Deeply disappointing.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, directed by Sarah Goodes. Sound Design by Clemence Williams. Performed by Rob Menzies, Katherine Tonkin, Marg Downey and Laurence Boxhall. Melbourne Theatre Company. Parts One, Two and Three online at Audio Lab.