The sound of pouring rain fills a dark, cavernous space, the smell of damp permeating the walls; while magnificent in its capacity, the remote Bly estate and the mansion which gives it its name has a sinister aspect which is conveyed all too swiftly in the diary of the young, unnamed governess who has taken up residence, her words discovered in 1961 and now recounted by Box Tale Soup in their new adaptation of Henry James’ Gothic novella The Turn of the Screw.
The underground chamber of Edinburgh’s Underbelly on the Cowgate the perfect space for the performance, if not perhaps so conducive to the performers over an extended period, it is the fifth year Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers have graced the Fringe with their particular approach to theatre since their debut with Casting the Runes, a minimal modular set of adaptable purpose and the two-strong company populating the entire dramatis personae through puppetry.
The governess is welcomed by housekeeper Mrs Grose and young Flora, but expelled from boarding school for reasons undisclosed the return of her elder brother Miles is at odds with the description of his former headmaster. The siblings entrancing to the governess, her contentedness is disturbed by a presence first sighted in the forbidden tower who matches the description of the late valet Peter Quint who died the previous winter.
The puppets of the children blank faced, the fears of Christophers’ governess are projected onto them, echoed and reflected back, their glass eyes glittering under the lights as the space is filled with sombre, echoing piano and tortured strings; they are beautiful, they are perfect, they are manipulative and they are wicked, playing games of deception and torment.
The clothing of the governess and Mrs Grose touched with green, the colour of life, in red and pink the children are tied with Quint, glimpsed as a face at the window but a permanent presence as Byrne lurks in the shadows, watching and waiting to step into the light, his hold over the children drawing the governess in.
Built around atmosphere and ambiguity, The Turn of the Screw is well presented by Byrne and Christophers though the narrative is slight and perhaps overly familiar, not only through the film version The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr and Peter Wyngarde but through the countless imitators who have repeated that premise, though in keeping with their established ethic, Box Tale Soup’s version remains largely faithful to the classic text.