The Turn of The Screw proves it's easy to scare audiences. The real trick is keeping them scared

Plus: Just who is the new Doctor Who?; And when images speak volumes

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's not terribly hard to scare people in the theatre. In fact, you can do it to me just by having the actors enter the auditorium with a look of ersatz mateyness on their faces. At the merest hint of audience participation, I resort to the same defensive posture I adopt when faced with situations of even mild tension in the cinema – I look at my knees and try to pretend that I'm deaf until the hazard has passed.

And, as The Woman in Black continues to prove, you can also put people into a state of dread with supernatural manifestations too. But I can't help feeling that there's something different about the quality of the fright you get when you do. I found myself thinking about this last week while watching Rebecca Lenkiewicz's adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, which has just opened at the Almeida.

It's a slightly odd thing this – a psychological reading of the text that operates almost entirely by parapsychological means. That's to say that Lenkiewicz's final reading of the story (at least as I understood it) presents it as an account of female sexual hysteria – a classic Freudian case history of repressed desire. But the presentation on stage is of a classic Hammer horror, rather literally so since the production has financial support from Hammer's new theatrical offshoot. It isn't a production that eases you into the spectral; from the moment the lights go down the eerie soundtrack tells you that the first scene –a job interview in a blankly unspooky London office – is just a cover for things going bump in the night.

As Henry James adaptations go it isn't very Henry Jamesish. Where he withholds certainty about what's been done and what's seen, Lenkiewicz is explicit. The sexual corruption of the children isn't just talked about, it's talked out, as they use language that no decently brought-up Victorian child has any business knowing. And after a time it becomes clear that Quint and Miss Jessel, the two spectral presences in James's tale, are liable to pop up without warning absolutely anywhere.

One of the evolving challenges for those who seek to scare an audience is to find new places to hide the jack-in-the-box, and though The Turn of the Screw's devices aren't entirely without precedent in the theatre they're fresh enough to squeeze a loud yelp out of us. One woman squealed so loudly on the night I went that she felt obliged to apologise to everyone immediately afterwards.

What a thin kind of terror it is though. And oddly, thinner even than the same kind of fright on film, which for some reason (perhaps to do with photography) can more successfully suspend your disbelief for you, even as you struggle to unhook it and let it drop.

A film might always, just conceivably, be a transcription of a real world, a recording of something that actually happened. A play, however brilliant, will always be received as a kind of re-enactment. So the boo moments, when they come, make you jump and then blush at your silly susceptibility. And feeling slightly ashamed of yourself isn't entirely compatible with a sense of continuing dread. You're scared, then self-mocking, then scared again, and self-mocking once more, like one of those showers that spritz hot and cold.

I think it matters too that you're looking at real space, rather than cinema's fractal, multi-dimensional field of action. So when Quint appears and disappears almost instantaneously you think, "Oh. There must be a trapdoor between X and Y", not "Where the hell is he going to be next?"

Mechanism obtrudes, in a way that simply isn't true in cinema, which has mechanisms to spare. So, yes, it's relatively easy to scare people in the theatre. But it's much harder to make it anything but a facile kind of dread.

Another one lost in space and time

My heart sank a little when I read that David Bradley was to play Doctor Who. Not another casualty, I thought. Another talented British actor swallowed up by that over-indulged franchise and subjected to the zealotry of its fans. Then I read on: he wasn't playing the Doctor, but the man who first played him – William Hartnell. That's a role an actor can get his teeth into, if we see a bit of distance between the player and the part. An anxiety remains, though. The script for An Adventure in Space and Time has been written by Mark Gatiss, an avid Whovian. He's up to the task of writing Doctor Who's Satanic Verses. But would he have the nerve?

When an image speaks volumes

What you feel about Steven Spielberg's Lincoln will rather depend on what you feel about wordy movies. I quite like them, so although I had differences with Tony Kushner's script I liked its garrulity. But it also contains what I think is the best wordless sequence Spielberg has put on screen for years. It occurs when Lincoln takes his son to an army hospital, hoping to deter him from enlisting, and it shows an orderly pushing a wheelbarrow out of the ward. We can't see what's in it, only that it is dripping blood. Then he tips it into a pit, adding a sprawl of amputated limbs to the pile already there. Suddenly the war, an abstraction in the politicians' arguments, isn't abstract at all. You can almost feel Spielberg's relief at being able to say something silently.