Review: ‘Turn of the Screw’

The Turn of the Screw is one of Benjamin Britten’s most striking operas. Adapted from Henry James’s 1898 novel, with a libretto by Myfwany Piper, secrets, madness and ghosts mercilessly intertwine to carry the performance to a harrowing conclusion. Sung in English, rather than the German or Italian currently most commonly associated with the art form, it is simultaneously modern and reminiscent of the early operas written in the 17th century, with a particular structural debt to Purcell’s work. It is at times also more reminiscent of a film score than a traditional opera, with the entire score based primarily around a single motif. Above and beyond the demands of the text and score, however, there is a potential dramatic difficulty with two out of the six characters being children.

Given all these challenges I was unsure what to think of Faded Ink Productions making this their first foray into performing a full opera. But it did not show in the slightest: under Timothy Coleman’s direction and Tomos Watkins’s musical direction, this was gothic opera at its best. Staging The Turn of the Screw in mid-October in a gothic church, and making inventive use of the peculiarities of such a space was an inspired decision. This made the ghosts’ luring of the children, for example, downright eerie. Brilliantly played by Guy Withers (Quint/Prologue) and Rose Rands (Miss Jessel), they were charismatic and at times terrifying in their implacable and tragic villainy, with “Miles, Miles, ah Miles, I’m here,” “Why did you call me?”, and “She is here in my own room” being particular treats. 

The Turn of the Screw © Tom Herring
The Turn of the Screw © Tom Herring

By having the ghosts moving around the church, in the aisles, and from behind the choir screen, creating some fantastic shadows, we were led to ask what was real and what was not. Such immersive staging thereby cleverly echoed a central tenet of the piece: are the ghosts real, or merely a product of the Governess’s imagination? Sonia Jacobson’s Governess is poised, repressed even, adding complexity to what might seem at first glance to be a mild character. Her journey, culminating in an emotional finale, is well handled, showing technical control as well as realistic acting, which is no mean feat. The Governess and Alexandra Lloyd’s Mrs Grose form a genuinely touching double act, apparent in “Ah! My dear you look so white.” Mrs Grose is warm and human, with considerable backbone, shown in “Quint, Peter Quint, the master’s valet,” one of the more powerful moments in an opera that rushes headlong from one powerful, spine-tingling moment to the next.       

The Turn of the Screw is a demanding production, for cast, orchestra, and audience alike. Such an immersive production as this requires concentration on the audience’s part as well. The music, characters, and the audience’s perception of what they believe is going on combine to create something quite special. Depending on what view of the presence of the ghosts one takes, views of the other characters change as well, especially the children. Danny Wymbs (Miles) and Emily Coatsworth (Flora) rise to the challenge musically, but also in portraying these complex children in such a way that allows for different views on who precisely is orchestrating the whole plot. Danny Wymbs’s Miles is layered, at times angelic, playful, but also fantastically unsettling, making his “Malo” particularly haunting. Emily Coatsworth does a similarly admirable job with her Flora: she appears a normal child on the surface, but with undercurrents of malice which abruptly come to the fore in “Oh rivers and seas and lakes” and “Flora, Flora there she is.”

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The music itself is remarkable, with the entire opera composed from variations upon one twelve note motif, reprised and changed by the different characters throughout. Part of the fun, therefore, is listening and understanding how each character changes and builds upon what has come before, sometimes with a mordant irony, and always illuminating the tangled subtext that runs through the course of the opera. This also has the effect of blurring the lines between operatic music and film music to great effect. Variations are combined with impressionistic sound effects to transition between scenes and reflect the characters’ thoughts in the quasi-cinematic reflective pauses at the beginning or ends of scenes. Within the context of opera’s long history, The Turn of the Screw remains remarkably innovative, even though it was first performed in 1954. This production is consistently impressive, and aptly seasonal as we approach All Hallows Eve.

Alexia Kirk

The Turn of the Screw’ runs at St John the Evangelist until the 24th October. For more information and to book tickets please visit their website.

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