Arts: Don't put your daughter on the screen, Mrs Worthington

Warning: the following article contains language that may offend. But then, argues Paul Taylor, so too do some of the films and plays in which under-age children are currently playing a leading role.

For the record, I experienced two shaming erections while watching the new movie version of Lolita - not fully-fledged ones, mind, but a definite stirring of the loins. This, though, may be more of an argument for banning me than for banning Adrian (Fatal Attraction) Lyne's artistically rubbishy film. It's a movie that still has to find a distributor in the US, and its star, Jeremy Irons, who plays the paedophiliac Humbert Humbert, has threatened - whetting the anticipation of some - to leave this country if it fails to pass the censors here.

I caught Lolita in its opening week in Paris, where I had gone to see the transfer of Deborah Warner's revelatory Royal Opera staging of Britten's The Turn of the Screw. I had also been granted permission to interview, in private, the 10-year-old girl, Pippa Woodrow, and the 12-year-old boy, Edward Burrowes, head chorister of St Paul's, about their experience of being in a production that thrillingly allows "mere children" to drive forward and to dominate a disturbing masterpiece. What do they understand it to be?

The coincidence of being able to see these two works back to back was, in the best sense of the word, highly suggestive. Both are adapted from prose fiction and both Nabokov's novel (Lolita) and Henry James's novella (The Turn of the Screw) focus on a most uneasy violation of the boundary between the realm of childhood and/ or pubescence and the world of adults. Lolita is a first-person delivered by a twisted connoisseur of nymphets who motel-beds his 12-year-old stepdaughter after virtually killing her mother. If uttered by Humbert, the line "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child" would take on a perverted secondary meaning - an expression of gourmet-taste on the model of "Sometimes I have a positive fetish for foie gras".

Defenders of the novel would argue that it moves towards a deepened definition of love: the ultimate realisation by Humbert that his sexual infatuation with this girl - his exploitation of her being, in today's jargon, prematurely "up for it" - has done her, indeed done both of them, great damage. Detractors would say that the sticky sentimentality of his compunction shows him unable to un-gum himself from his adhesive self-pity.

In The Turn of the Screw, a much better piece of fiction, a new young governess, tense about her job to the point of prurience, fights for the souls of her young charges against the ghosts of their former governess and her manservant lover.

On the page, matters are complicated enough. On the stage and on celluloid, the problems are compounded, because any performance version of these books raises the whole intensely tricky question - both a technical and a moral one - of how you use actors who are minors in works of art about the corruption of minors. Seeing Lolita and The Turn of the Screw in (so to speak) the light of each other has powerfully reinforced my conviction that theatre is, in this regard, a much more responsible and imaginatively releasing medium than movies.

The fundamental issue is respect for the child. Film can edit minors into situations that show scant respect for a child's reality. The recent movie Lawn Dogs exploited the publicity value of the fact that its 11- year-old star, Misha Barton, was deemed too young to attend the premiere. The film dramatises the developing, yet innocent, bond between an imaginative prepubescent girl and the sexy white-trash young guy who mows the lawns in the achingly manicured middle-class locality. Misconstrued, the relationship inflames the already prickly prejudices against this man.

Misha Barton's mother was on hand to explain things for her to the press: "She can understand the certification. The subject matter is very deep. Somebody is shot and there is a little bit of sexuality in the beginning, though not to do with the child."

This is either disingenuous or not very bright. One of the strengths of the film is its understanding of double standards, the fact, say, that the fictional mother, twitchy with suspicion, does not herself draw the line at snatching illicit sexual satisfaction from time to time with a local college boy.

In one scene, she is inadvertently watched by her little girl, as, with this youth secreted under her dress, she goes into pre-orgasmic judders. The girl walks off, giggling in a "they're a weird lot, adults" sort of way, as though she'd just caught her mother doing a goofy, furtive impersonation of a washing machine during its final spin.

My point about editing is that the child's expression at this moment strikes me as quite inauthentic and falsely reassuring, discontinuous with the experience she has purportedly had.

Sometimes editing can be benign. It's reported that a body-double has been used in some sequences for the 15-year-old actress, Dominique Swain, who plays Lolita in Lyne's film. Unlike the 1961 Stanley Kubrick movie (scripted by Nabokov himself), the new screen version does include sex scenes. Here, it's the banality of the film medium that strikes you. On stage, you have a choice. For example, you could, in ways that would be a comment on Humbert's deluded, degrading obsession, have the nymphet played as the dowdy adult housewife she afterwards becomes.

Film, by comparison, is so literal-minded. Though Lolita's precise age is never stated in the script, the actress seems to have been chosen because she looks flagrantly precocious. There's a scene where she's reading a comic book on her stepfather's knee, except that his knee isn't all that she's on, and her pleasure in the book and her sexual enjoyment seem to have a disturbing equality. There's another sequence in which Humbert, frenzied with suspicion that she's two-timing him, virtually rapes her and she laughs at his stricken, throttled face above her with a scandalous amorality. The human meaning of sex is, as yet, absent from this young character's mind and, to be sure that a performer wasn't being exploited, you would need to know to what extent she herself did, at the time, know such a meaning. The date on a birth certificate is an imprecise guide to that.

In a letter of 1959, Nabokov wrote appreciatively of a Lolita-inspired cartoon in Playboy. It depicted a middle-aged man attempting to check into a motel with a very young girl. He remonstrates with the owners, one of whom is holding a copy of Nabokov's novel: "Dammit, what's the matter with you people? She's my daughter, I tell you!" Sounds pretty merciless from our perspective, doesn't it, where a man alone with a real daughter would have to brace himself before signing into a double-room at a hotel? And the editing of minors in movies can't help but feel, nowadays, on a continuum with the graphic image-distortions of paedophile porn on the Internet.

Minors can, of course, be misused in theatre, but the possibilities of presenting them with respect and imagination are greater.

One option is to leave them out altogether as performers. In Mike Alfred's wonderful staging of Philip Osment's What I Did in the Holidays, the awakening homosexuality of a just-prepubescent boy was superbly communicated by a youthful-looking adult actor who was able - in ways that left an audience undistracted by questions about the production's own morality - to present a sympathetically objective view of the dangerous, almost unconscious flirtatiousness you get at this stage of sexual development.

The opposite policy has been adopted in Ian Rickson's lovely, just-opened Cottesloe production of Kevin Elyot's The Day I Stood Still. A 13-year- old council estate toughie (or rather, would-be toughie), evidently abused at home, and destined, as we know from the play, to become a rent boy, is played by Joseph Swash, who was cast at the age of 15. He was chosen not from drama school but from the ranks of amateurs because he has all the authenticity of coming from a similar social (if not familial) background. Interesting to hear how he delivers the line "You can wank me for a quid" on the night his headmistress comes in.

Rickson, artistic director in waiting at the Royal Court, stresses the equality he and his adult cast were careful to grant this boy. He always worked from the full text, and in rehearsal explored the psychology of someone from a dysfunctional family needing attention so badly they'd accept, or even initiate, attention of the wrong kind. The only thing he was not allowed to take part in was the cast's conversation with a real-life rent boy, brought in for research purposes at an undisclosed fee.

Like Carl Miller, Rickson's successor as director of the Royal Court Youth Theatre, which recently presented a play about juvenile rape using actors aged between 14 and 16, Rickson believes that drama can help young people to ask questions of their experience that they may be too inhibited to broach with parents or teachers. The world of a play is liberatingly hypothetical: you can step back from the outline of an assumed character undamaged, indeed strengthened in your sense of self.

This is just what I found, talking to the two child stars of Deborah Warner's Turn of the Screw. In a production of genius (sadly now past, but likely soon to be filmed for TV), the director has not only given the children imaginative space through the rehearsal process, she's turned the whole territory of the opera into their imaginative space. It's the living adults, like the anxious governess, who are the intruders in the vast, dark and bare evocation of the country house where the children hurtle around with unnerving speed, indulging in conspiratorial adult- mocking or mutually supportive rituals.

Warner has tapped into the extraterrestrial quality of children: the sense that there's something in them that is not quite continuous with the adult world. It's they who change the scenes; it's they who take the principal bow. By presenting the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint as moving with a kind of natural - as opposed to supernatural - unnaturalness in their territory (Quint helps the little boy make his bed; Miss Jessel turns her body into an upright cushion for the little girl), Warner leaves open the question of whether their continuing, posthumous influence on the children need have been merely destructive, if it had not been sensationalised by the governess and housekeeper.

How much of all this do the child singers understand? I found them in their dressing-room, tucking into pre-performance burgers. Pippa had sprained her ankle executing one of the spectacular, weirdly diversionary cartwheels her Flora goes in for, and was upset that this might mean not being able to go, as planned, on a day-trip to Disneyland. (The Disney Turn of the Screw, now there's a thought.) But, through Warner's rehearsals - she largely kept her child and adult casts separate, and played games in which the children dictated the terms on questions such as, "Do they or do they not see the ghosts at this point?" - this same girl, pining for Disneyland, has had remarkable insights into the potential of her character. The new governess, she announces, does not really win the contest, "because a part of Miss Jessel has entered Flora's soul". I later learn that it was from the child that the idea came of having Flora leave the opera angry, toughened, unreconciled, somehow her own girl because of the experience, rather than have her simply carted off by the housekeeper as usual.

Edward Burrowes, as the more knowing, on-the-brink-of-adolescence Miles, makes the point that being in the opera is not frightening, whereas watching other versions - the video of David Leveaux's Scottish Opera staging, the movie The Innocents - is. I ask Edward if he feels that, should his own performance be preserved on video, he may find later in life that he frightens himself. It's a possibility, he concedes. What he most certainly won't feel, as some child performers surely do in retrospect, is that he has been exploited. This is the best direction of children I've ever seen, proving that you get the finest results by applying to the world of the child the keenest adult consideration.

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