THE TURN OF THE SCREW. York Theatre Royal.
Stephen Mallatratt's original adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw had three actors and there were no children. The parts of Miles and Flora, the children affected by the ghost of the evil manservant, Quint, were conveyed with voice-overs and by adults in story-telling roles.
Damian Cruden, who is directing The Turn of the Screw at York Theatre Royal, was attracted to Mallatratt's work. He admired the quality of the writing, but he wanted changes and Mallatratt agreed.
"The notion of a psychological thriller was the strongest thing in that version," says Cruden. "It was less of a ghost story. The ambiguity of the novella was strong in Stephen's version and I also felt that ambiguity of a sexual nature was better developed than in any other version I had read."
But it was not going to work as it stood. The chilling element had not been communicated effectively with just three actors in the original in-the-round staging. So this time there is a proscenium stage and a cast of five, including two child actors.
"The boys are 13 and the girls 11 and 12 (two teams), but they do look younger." Cruden says that young actors intelligent enough to play the roles will inevitably ask questions. "I have answered them. Because the piece has so much to do with ambiguity, I didn't want the children to be in a situation where they felt they knew less than other people involved; after all they are essential to what is going on."
The attraction of The Turn of the Screw lies in its ambiguity. Cruden feels there should be room for the spectator's response - and whatever a spectator feels is justifiable. For some people it may be about child abuse, for some it may be about lost freedom. Henry James was trying to create a world to which people could bring some of their own fears.
"The narration blends into and out of the action," Cruden explains. "It's very clever because the notion of who is telling the story is beautifully interwoven with how people are involved in the story.
"We're looking at whether the person telling the story has experienced the events more personally than the way he pretends to have. There is an element of that in the novella. The story is couched in 'I heard it from I' terms in the novella, but is told in such detail. You can't help but feel - here is someone who has been close to it!" Cruden wants to draw people, by giving them a sense of security, into a world which seems happy, and then provide moments when they briefly, fleetingly, question why something is not quite right. The moments come closer together and then - wham!
"I want to take their breath away," he says, with a determined gleam in his eye.
"The Turn of the Screw" is at York Theatre Royal from 6 to 28 March. Tickets: 01904 623568