The Turn of the Screw: DVxT at The Campbell House Museum

turn of the screw

by Ryan Oakley

A strange tale told in an old house during the Halloween season should be sufficiently gruesome.  It should tingle the skin and infuse even the most banal aspects of your surroundings, the creaking step and flickering light, with menace.  At this, DVxT’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, playing at The Campbell House Museum, is particularly effective.

There is no stage to speak of, or rather, all the house is a stage.  Two actors lead the audience through the different rooms of Campbell House Museum.  Much of the action takes place just out of sight, some of it seeming to only take place in the mind of the Governess.  We cannot be sure if we should be using our imaginations or if the Governess is just using her own.

Just as it should be.

Over the years, many critics have argued about whether the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw are real, or part of some psychotic episode experienced by the Governess.  I would comment upon this ambiguity but I’m unsure whether I’ve even read the book.  As it is, I recall the thing sitting upon my night table for some short period.  I would go to bed drunk and awake to find my bookmark moved.   One brutal morning, I awoke with another book there.  Perhaps I finished the book, perhaps I did not.  I have no memory of the story.  But there is so little that I have memories of . . .

The play seems to take its own stand upon the ghost issue, but it’s a cautious one.  The question is not completely settled, nor should it be.  Things seem to be one way, but with only a little thought, they could be quite another.  The actions of The Governess, and reactions of those around her, are allowed to speak for themselves.  The ghosts say nothing.  They never do.

Their silence is what makes the tale so terrible.

The play, however, is fantastic.

Watching a play is often like sitting through a boring movie with too much talking and too few explosions.  The audience sits in the same sort of seats in both  an iMax theatre and a playhouse, and watches the same sort of thing in three dimensions or in two.  Attempts to make use of the living nature of a play often strike me as clumsy, retrofitted inefficiencies; hack attempts to engage an audience that is denied even the simple pleasure of Elizabethan stage: That is, throwing tomatoes.

But this production does something that no movie can do:  It takes you through a historic building as the drama unfolds.  The rooms are the sets.  The tour through Campbell House Museum is alone worth the price of admission.  To sit in its rooms by candlelight on a cold October evening, to feel the heat of actual fires in some rooms and the drafts in others is a tactile pleasure unrivalled by any movie I have ever seen.   It belongs, uniquely, to live theatre.

There are, however, problems with this method.  (Although compensated for by the benefits, they still exist.)  Between scenes, when the actors leave the room, the audience is left in a momentary confusion about whether to follow.  This makes them think and their thoughts interrupt the drama.  The transition from room to room will always occasion a slight readjustment and breaking the suspension of disbelief.  This could be lessened by having an actor/usher blend into the crowd to better lead the herd of spectators.

Even facing these challenges, the two actors, Christine Horne (as The Governess) and Clinton Walker (as everyone else,) do a wonderful job.  Placed in such close proximity to their small audience, often standing within touching distance, their performances are electric.  When they look over your shoulder, you want to turn to see what’s there.  Maybe it’s nothing.  Maybe not.

Clinton Walker carries the weight of the show, playing everything from a child to cleaning lady and is utterly believable in each role, avoiding sappiness, sentimentality or, god forbid, a Monty Python-esque version of a woman.  There is little in the way of costume changes and his body is his best prop; instantly communicating who he is at any given time.  Presented with a difficult task, he makes it all look quite easy.  By turns, he is: spooky, funny and sympathetic.

Christine Horne, (an actress I have reviewed before and found memorable but wanting,) here proves herself to be an exceptionally talented performer.  In The Turn of the Screw she starts out as a shy young woman and ends it in quite a different state.  She has a notable kinetic presence; her body actually seems to change in size as she grows from timidity into imposing physicality.

Acting together, these two combust.  Whether as low key as the candle lit rooms or engaged in rapid and emotional dialogue, whether smouldering like the coals in one of the many fireplaces, or bursting into sudden crackling flames, these two turn in wonderful performances, each made better by the other.  By turns they are sinister, sexual, warm and frightening.  Sometimes all at once.   Sometimes they are something much more ambiguous.  Something unspeakable.

And that’s where the heart of this story beats: In that strange ambiguity.  During this  performance, I sometimes felt that I was a ghost in that old house, glimpsed at by the living and watching their strange drama unfold.  At other moments, I was alive and watching the ghosts acting out their old and unresolved horror.  However I felt the story always held me by the fire, sufficiently breathless, and captive to this strange and gruesome tale.


The Turn of the Screw by DVxT runs from Oct 16 to Nov 7. Mon-Sat 8:30 pm, mats Wed-Thu 1 pm at Campbell House Museum.  (160 Queen W. at Osgoode Subway Station.)

Ticket Prices: Preview and matinees $15; Mon PAY-WHAT-YOU-CAN; Tues &Wed $25; Fri & Sat $35.

Tickets are available online or through the box office at 416 504-DVxT (3898)

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