Theatre: Turn of the screws

David Benedict goes to prison for a unique production of the chilling Henry James short story, The Turn of the Screw, while Dominic Cavendish is granted visiting rights to review it, below
In 1971, Michael Winner created one of cinema's most unlikely - and short-lived - double-acts by casting Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beacham in The Nightcomers. This misbegotten film was a prequel to the eerie, shocking events that unfold in Henry James's short story, The Turn of the Screw.

Leaving aside the film's individual strengths or weaknesses, Winner was on to a loser from the start because its conception was so entirely at odds with the original material. The script amounted to a single explanation for the deliberately ambiguous and hence disturbing essence of James's tale. It is this ambiguity which is at the core of its fascination and its enduring popularity.

At its simplest, The Turn of the Screw is a cunningly constructed ghost story (originally published 100 years ago in 12 weekly instalments) about a Victorian governess who, marooned at a Gothic country house, fatally comes to believe that the children in her charge are communicating with the evil spirits of former servants. And like all the finest examples of the genre, it defies literal interpretation. Are the ghosts "real" or the products of the governess's fevered imagination? The boy dies in her arms, but who kills him? To what extent are the ghosts evil?

These questions and many more have exercised the minds of scores of critics who, long before the days of deconstructivism, debated the story's "meaning", thereby falling into the trap set by James himself who more than acknowledged his tale's enticing ambiguity. Moreover, possibility of varying interpretations makes the story dramatic, a fact not lost on director Kate Raper.

The House of Detention is an underground prison in London's Clerkenwell so obscure it's a taxi driver's question in The Knowledge, but as soon as she and her designer, Es Devlin, saw it, they recognised its theatrical potential. Walking through the warren of narrow, gloomy corridors, with cramped cells leading off on either side, the clinging atmosphere of centuries of captivity and death suggested a ghost story, at which point she hit upon the notion of staging The Turn of the Screw.

Site-specific work is nothing new. Robert Wilson capitalised upon the frightening atmosphere of disused buildings with his masterly HG, a beautiful hybrid of an extrasensory art installation and a theatre piece with no actors. Neil Bartlett staged the first part of Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin in the depths of a London hospital, using the feelings of mortality that assail you upon entering such a building, to enhance his meditation on life and death. Although prisons are less familiar to most people, Raper is playing the same game.

"The vast strangeness of Bly, the house where it all happens, is essential to the piece. The House of Detention has no literal similarities to a house of that period but its associations and gloom make it a perfect location. It resonates with the story, the sense of being detained, the relationship between adults and children mirroring those between prisoners and warders. And it's so labyrinthine, mirroring the mind of the governess."

The smell, the sense of being underground and the claustrophobia all contribute to a sensual effect that would be hard to create elsewhere. "The atmosphere of this space gives you so much, before you've done anything."

In 1961 the British director Jack Clayton changed James's story into a transfixing film The Innocents with a superbly shot script co-written by Truman Capote, and Nick Dear (who wrote the excellent screenplay for the TV film of Persuasion) is currently writing a TV version. Peter Oswald's adaptation has been conceived specifically to fit Raper's staging ideas which focus on the venue's cinematic potential.

Unlike cinema, theatre works from a fixed viewpoint to one where each audience member selects where to look on the stage. Raper, however, is partly working in a promenade performance style. Her main acting area is 4m wide but 17m long, with corridors and entrances all over the place.

"We can move closer to the filmic business of selecting what we want an audience to see," she explains. "Sometimes the audience will be on two sides, sometimes down at one end. They won't all get the same perspective all the time, but you can position and light things separately and play with distance, telescoping images in a way you can't do in a traditional theatre space."

The building itself may be the set, but design is still crucial - with particular emphasis on lighting and sound, both live and recorded.

"Almost all the walls have holes and airbricks," she says. "It's highly porous, like a honeycomb. If you have the sound of someone sobbing coming from one area, you can't work out where it's coming from, which is great for us. There's a real eerieness about the way the sound carries."

That certainly helps get over one of the most obvious difficulties: how do you convincingly portray ghosts, especially as some would argue that they are a figment of the governess's imagination? In the Royal Opera House's recent, spellbinding staging of Benjamin Britten's operatic version, Deborah Warner refused to differentiate between the ghosts and the other characters. Instead, a mildly dishevelled Ian Bostridge mooned about the almost empty set in a green corduroy jacket, looking for all the world like a morose geography teacher: very normal and deeply scary. Similarly, in Raper's production, everyone is anxious to avoid the white sheet, "whoo- whoo, clank-clank" performance style.

"I want the ghosts to be physical and erotic, but it's difficult. Again, the space has come to the rescue. You can light people to suggest they are not quite there," she says.

Raper believes that in traditional theatre buildings, most potential solutions have been explored, particularly those dealing with the audience's relationship to the stage.

"Because of all sorts of things like raves, people want there to be a sense of adventure. You go to a building that's maybe hard to find, and you don't know what it's going to be like; you don't know what's going to be asked of you. It's all a bit more of a surprise."

The House of Detention, Clerkenwell Close, London EC1; Tonight-Friday 6pm & 9pm, Saturday 12pm & 2pm. Advance tickets: 0171-928 6363