‘It’s just very ancient isn’t it, being told a scary story?’ MTC Associate Artistic Director Sarah Goodes is a longstanding fan of spooky tales, and was excited by the possibilities on offer via an audio-only telling of one.
The Turn of the Screw is an undeniable classic of the genre; indeed, many consider it the founding father of psychological ghost stories. For Goodes, it’s especially suited to an audio dramatisation for a few key reasons: the often solo listening experience goes hand-in-hand with the medium and, in removing visual cues from storytelling, there’s a particular tension that can be achieved in forcing audiences to rely only on their sense of hearing ... and their imagination.
One of Goodes’s formative dramatic impressions speaks to this: listening to Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds, narrated by Richard Burton. ‘In the late 70s, my dad would play the double album really late at night when we were in bed,’ she explains, ‘and it was terrifying, thrilling and incredible! I’ve never forgotten that experience, or the power of his voice.’ (Indeed, Goodes even asked her father how you get a voice like that. His answer: ‘well you smoke a lot of cigarettes and you drink a lot of whisky!’)
The experience instilled a lifelong love of the genre in the director. She enjoys watching thrillers and ‘scary shows’ and believes ‘it’s an important part of storytelling, to talk about fear and examine it, to feel it and to know what it is.’ Such stories are valuable because they’re so nourishing for your imagination, she says. ‘They make your imagination exercise itself.’
Did you hear that?
One of the ways Goodes enjoys exercising her own imagination is by ‘trying to imagine what it was like when there was no film, no photography, no radio, nothing. People had to conjure up everything through language.’ Ghosts stories are ideally suited to such telling. Think about when you were a child, sitting around a campfire or in a darkened room, listening to someone sharing such a tale – perhaps with a torch under their chin for dramatic effect. Every sound becomes amplified, every thought and fear exaggerated. ‘When you’re looking at something, you’ve got your other senses involved in it,’ Goodes says. ‘But when you’re just listening, that sense becomes heightened.’
When directing for the stage, Goodes is drawn to plays that recreate these campfire storytelling moments, that moment when ‘someone within the play says “Did you hear that?” and everybody [in the audience] leans in to listen. It’s infectious and it changes the temperature of a room.’
‘James writes with such detail ... Then he kind of suspends it, sort of draws in a breath and holds it in suspense. You’re allowed this space for your imagination to fill these gaps, which is where fear exists.’
It’s in that moment of attentive listening, she says, that ‘you can all possibly hear what isn’t there and it becomes an act of collective imagination. You’re imagining what lies in the darkness and what lies in the silence. And the drama happens in the gaps between what you think is going to happen and what actually does happen. An audio recording allows those moments to be held and amplified in a really special way.’
These moments of collective imagination are particularly relevant for a story like The Turn of the Screw, which relies so heavily on ambiguity, and which toys with time and silence. ‘There’s all these moments where James writes with such detail, this incredible overload of detail,’ Goodes explains. ‘Then he kind of suspends it, sort of draws in a breath and holds it in suspense. He plays with time, slowing it right down for the moments when the ghosts arrive. It’s like music in a way. And you’re allowed this space for your imagination to fill these gaps, which is where fear exists. That’s why I thought it would be so brilliantly suited to an audio recording of it.’
A timeless story
One of the things Goodes is interested in is why we keep returning to some stories, whether they be mythical tales or literary classics. The Turn of the Screw is one of those stories. ‘With this particular short story, this novella, pretty much every 10 years someone makes a film of it or someone does an adaptation of it,’ she says, listing just a few off the top of her head: The Haunting of Helen Walker, The Nightcomers, The Innocents, The Others. Even if they’re not necessarily exact adaptations, she notes, they’re inspired by James’s work. ‘So I was fascinated by returning to the source, and going: what is it inside here that makes it so appealing?’
Her conclusion? ‘I love that you can’t really articulate what it is,’ she begins. ‘I think one of the reasons why it’s lasted so long as this continual source of inspiration is that it’s impossible to pin it down. It’s so elusive and so quick on its feet that it’s always just ahead of you. I think all great art is like a silver fish: it brushes before you and it swims off and you want to try to catch it but you know that if you did, it would lose its beauty. The Turn of the Screw has very much got that.’
‘I think one of the reasons why it’s lasted so long as this continual source of inspiration is that it’s impossible to pin it down.’
She also notes that it continues to surprise and delight her each time she reads it, as different details come to the fore or appear in previously unseen ways. ‘I remember reading it years ago, and then reading it again recently and it still taking my breath away – this moment when something sort of stepped out of the shadows and revealed itself to me in a way I hadn’t seen coming. Again!’
But the very elusiveness that makes the work so timeless is also what makes it challenging to adapt or interpret. ‘It’s not a long piece, but trying to edit it down and do an adaptation to make it more like a dramatic retelling was really, really difficult,’ Goodes says. ‘It’s like he was fool-proofing himself from people in the future meddling with his writing,’ she jokes. ‘It’s a very intricate beast that doesn’t like its coat being tampered with: you cut something down and then three pages later he refers back to it. It’s woven together so intrinsically that if you pull a thread, everything starts to unravel and you’d have to madly try knitting it back together again.’
Reaching across space
Luckily, Goodes was working with an excellent cast, all eminently up to the task: Shakespeare in Love’s Laurence Boxhall, Emerald City’s Marg Downey, and Rob Menzies and Katherine Tonkin, both seen most recently on the MTC stage in Così. Tonkin, who takes on the central role of the governess, particularly relished the challenge of James’s ‘long sentences’, says Goodes. ‘I just can’t believe how perfect she was for it – the period, the language, the ability to find the rhythm and the internal psychological roadmap of those long sentences. She just intuitively got it.’ Tonkin also enjoyed the challenge so much that she worked on the script before they went into recording. ‘She knew exactly what it required.’
‘I love that idea of voices connecting in the night time ... It feels so intimate and immediate.’
There’s also something special about listening to actors’ voices, Goodes believes, especially if you do so with good headphones on. ‘They’ve got the most extraordinary voices, and it’s incredibly captivating.’ Especially in this case, because The Turn of the Screw is ‘so much about being inside the governess’s mind, so it’s very much suited to have her whispering in your ear as her story is brought to life through her voice.’
Ultimately, Goodes hopes audiences take the time to really indulge in the story, to enjoy all its detail ‘because it’s a real joy to hear language like that again’. She suggests going for an essential exercise walk and tuning in, or listening to it in bed late at night. ‘I love that idea of voices connecting in the night time, of having a relationship with someone you’ve never met just through their voice. It feels so intimate and immediate. It’s that sense of reaching across space.’
Published on 30 July 2020