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<em>The Turn of the Screw</em>: ENO & Regent’s Park Theatre
26 Jun 2018

The Turn of the Screw: ENO at Regent's Park Theatre

In the second scene, ‘The Welcome’, of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, the Governess arrives at her employer’s country house, Bly, to take charge of her two new tutees, and sings, “Bly, I begin to love you … For Bly is now my home”. Later, she declares, “I too am home. Alone, tranquil and serene.” It’s difficult to imagine a less homely, tranquil and serene dwelling place than the cracked and crooked glass-house which forms the single set for English National Opera’s new production of The Turn of the Screw, and which marks a new association between the company and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.

The Turn of the Screw: ENO & Regent’s Park Theatre

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Anita Watson (The Governess)

Photo credit: Johan Persson

 

The spiky shards and rusting scaffold of the attic of designer Soutra Gilmour’s gothic summer-house point their confrontational fingers towards the thick green tree-tops and ever-darkening sky above the ‘woodland auditorium’. The house is a potent symbol of the neglect of which the children’s guardian is guilty, and of the moral danger to which this ethical irresponsibility exposes his two charges. Indeed, there’s physical danger too, for the set is formed of twisting ladders, roof-top perches and planked pathways which skirt and lead down to the tangled canes beside the imagined lake - bringing to my mind the reed beds of Snape Maltings, though beside the River Alde the whispering swoosh of the wind and the cool cry of the curlew have none of the aura of decay and peril that the rustling leaves and fleeting bird-song conjure here.

Director Timothy Sheader, the artistic director of Regent’s Park Theatre, leaves us in no doubt of the presence of evil and menace - the dilapidated piano and lop-sided chalk-board embedded in the undergrowth seem to undermine the notion that the children are to receive any ethical or educational instruction at Bly - but he might perhaps have been wise to have paid more heed to Henry James’s own words, ‘Make [the reader] think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications’ (‘Preface’ to the Turn of the Screw).

For, it’s the withholding of knowledge and certainty, the prevalence of secrets, the refusal to elucidate ‘meaning’ which makes James’s novella so chillingly disconcerting. It’s true that Britten does ‘fill in’ some of James’s gaps, particularly in determining that the ghosts should sing (and surely they should, if they are to be a driving musico-dramatic force and not simply Freudian intimations or projections of the Governess’s psycho-neurosis). While James was concerned with ‘causing the situation to reek with the air of Evil’ rather than with ‘having my apparitions correct’, according to Lord Harewood, Britten was adamant that the haunting should be ‘real’ rather than a product of the Governess’s paranoia. But, it’s hard to believe that the composer imagined that his ghosts would walk amongst the seated audience, undeniably corporeal.

Daniel Alexander Sidhom.jpg. Daniel Alexander Sidhom as Miles. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Sheader risks inciting the criticism which The Times made of the 1954 premiere in Venice: that the ghosts were ‘two too solid stage villains’. This Quint is a solid physical presence whose rugged vulgarity is emphasised by an ugly red wig and beard. Moreover, his first calls to Miles, which emanate from the top-rear of the auditorium, are too firm and present - a consequence of the amplification of this production which frequently shatters the music’s inherent intimations and subtleties and upsets the balance between singers and instrumentalists. I missed the unearthly beauty of Quint’s vocal arabesques, as audience heads swivelled and strained to see from whence the strong voice arose: the point is, surely, that it springs unbidden but welcome from an unexplained shadow world - its presence heralded by the ornamental gestures, pentatonic sweeps and exotic colourings of the scene’s instrumental preface. It doesn’t help that a scene titled ‘At Night’ takes place in sun-drenched daylight (despite the shifting of the original start time to achieve a more ambient coincidence of narrative and setting). I began to reflect on Deborah Warner’s ROH production, twenty years ago now, when Ian Bostridge’s creepy, even ghastly, Quint emerged from the dense, mist-ensconced thickets, and it was hard to know what was real or imagined, inside or outside.

Miss Jessel was similarly corporeal - and, heavily pregnant, presumably by Quint (as is hinted in James’s tale when Mrs Grose tells the Governess that despite their difference in rank and position, there was ‘everything’ between them, and that, after that ‘She couldn’t have stayed. Fancy it here - for a Governess!’). Heavily made up, with gothic eye-shadows, draped in heavy green and purple which seems stained with pond-weed, her hands mud-streaked, this former governess looked as if she had been dredged up from lake in which she might have drowned.

. Photo Johan Persson. (2).jpg. Elen Willmer and Daniel Alexander Sidhom as Flora and Miles. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Some of Sheader’s ‘realism’ is effective, mostly that which pertains to the characterisation and relationship of the two children, Miles and Flora. Mischievous and boisterously fun-loving, they prepare for their new ward’s arrival by exuberantly practising their bows of greeting - and emptying flower-pots on their heads and drawing on the misty window panes. Gradually their games become ‘darker’, as they taunt each other with worms, race about and venture into the night with a confident abandon that might easily escalate into the violence of Lord of the Flies.

Sheader establishes their strong identification with the two ghosts: Miles puffs nonchalantly on a toy pipe; Flora plays with her long plait that imitates Miss Jessel’s fairy-tale, knee-length rope of hair. Wiping away the Latin conjugations which his Governess wishes him to practise, Miles draws two smiling stick-men, one large, one small, a none too subtle suggestion of allegiance.

When the letter arrives informing her that Miles has been dismissed from his school - a ‘shocking’, ‘unclean’ place, James’s Governess infers - she burns it; later, Miles carries out his own nocturnal immolation - what ‘shameful’ items does he incinerate? - and it is at this point that Quint calls to him, prompting young Miles to whip off his clean white suit and don a scruffy shirt, presumably once belonging to Quint. As Quint joins him on the lake-side platform, Miles hugs his chest, leaps and swirls, and grins with glee: certainly, freedom, discovery and fulfilment are what Quint offers - “In me secrets and half-formed desires meet. […] I am the hidden life that stirs when the candle is out.” - but Sheader seems to state with no ambiguity that it is sexual initiation that Miles is proffered and covets.

The earliest critics did not like this scene: Colin Mason, writing in The Guardian (15th Septembherer 1954), decried the expansion of the ‘episode with Miles on the lawn at night’ into ‘a quartet in which the relationship between the children and the ghosts is made crudely explicit’. In fact, here, Elen Willmer’s Flora shows great discipline in avoiding catching Miss Jessel’s eye as her former governess lunges towards her, coming centimetres within touching distance (librettist Myfanwy Piper’s stage directions indicate that Flora should ‘silently and deliberately turns around to face the audience away from Miss Jessel’). And, more successfully, in Act 2 Scene 6, ‘The Piano’, Quint arrogantly places a music-score on the piano and then reclines against the instrument, only raising himself to turn to a new page in the music, as Miles performs his parodic recital - leaving us in no doubt whose tune Miles is singing, whose song he imitates.

The Piano.jpg. Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Peter Quint and Anita Watson as The Governess, with Daniel Alexander Sidhom and Elen Willmer as Miles and Flora. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Just as the relationships between the children and ghosts seem unequivocally real and intense, so the suggestiveness of the instrumental parts is lost owing to the amplification of the musicians. Seated within the ruined glass-house, there is an opportunity for the musicians to serve as ghostly presences, intimated by elusive, often erotic, lyricism; but, the over-amplification sends percussive thumps, the horn’s statement of the ‘screw theme’, and the delicate traceries of harp and celeste in ‘At Night’, booming around the auditorium. And, as dusk finally falls, two hanging lights within the glass-house illuminate the players with all too clear definition.

There are two casts for the nine performances. It is common to assign a single tenor to perform the Prologue and the role of Peter Quint - Peter Pears took both roles at the first performance - which has the advantage of further increasing the ambiguity of James’s tale. Here, William Morgan and Elgan Llŷr Thomas sing both parts but take only one each in any one performance, switching roles with the changing casts. On this occasion, Morgan opened proceedings, delivering the Prologue in casual modern dress from amid the audience stalls, and extending a relaxed invitation into the narrative, though one that seemed too detached from the piano accompaniment which articulates the motifs of the ensuing musical narrative. Notwithstanding the aforementioned over-emphatic presence that results from the amplification, Llŷr Thomas’s muscular, firmly defined tenor captured Quint’s viciousness and angry resentment; he was similarly imposing physically - no wonder Miles was idolatrous and intimidated in equal measure. Elin Pritchard’s Miss Jessel was more other-worldly, and the luxurious richness of her soprano hinted at forbidden, transgressive passions; the scene in which she intrudes into the schoolroom and places herself at the Governess’s desk was frighteningly threatening.

Watson and Pritchard Photo Johan Persson.jpg. Anita Watson and Elin Pritchard as The Governess and Miss Jessel. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

As the Governess, Anita Watson sang with a beautifully sweet tone and finely, entrancingly nuanced phrasing; her words - there were no surtitles though copies of the libretto were supplied - were as crystalline as her conception of her own ‘mission’. But, while there was a strong sense of the Governess’s growing fear, I did not feel that this deluded ‘innocent’ was aware of her own culpability in the ensuing tragedy - this surely necessary if her final line, “What have we done between us?”, is to make sense? She should be firmly centred in a morally ambiguous middle-ground, but here seemed rather too sympathetic, against the obvious malevolence of the ghosts. And, Mrs Grose, sung with impressive musical composure and dramatic credibility by Janis Kelly, seemed to share this sympathy with the potential hysterical Governess, appearing never to challenge her even when it is implied that it is the Governess who terrifies Flora, not Miss Jessel at all, as the young girl begs Mrs Grose, “Cruel, horrible, hateful, nasty! We don’t want you! Take me away, take me away from her!”

Daniel Alexander Sidhom and Elen Willmer were tremendous as Miles and Flora; their expressive faces and utterly natural acting made the children believably and worryingly unpredictable and ‘uncontrollable’, beneath the veneer of polite conventions and mores, and their vocal lines were confidently and persuasively delivered.

Perhaps this review hasn’t fully conveyed the strong narrative propulsion of this production: while it may lack the suggestive inference of the most subtle and ghostly readings of the score, it is sincere, attentive to detail and tells the tale clearly. The singing is superb and one sensed that every member of the capacity audience was spellbound if not spooked. I just wish that Sheader had avoided some of James’s ‘weak specifications’ and trusted in the equivocal erotic suggestiveness of Britten’s music.

Claire Seymour

Britten: The Turn of the Screw

Prologue - William Morgan, Peter Quint - Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Governess - Anita Watson, Mrs Grose - Janis Kelly, Miss Jessel - Elin Pritchard, Miles - Daniel Sidhom, Flora - Elen Willmer; Director - Timothy Sheader, Conductor - Toby Purser, Designer - Soutra Gilmour, Movement Director - Jenny Ogilvie, Lighting Designer - Jon Clark, Sound Designer - Nick Lidster for Autograph, Season Associate Director (Voice) - Barbara Houseman, Fight Director - Paul Benzing, Orchestra of English National Opera.

Regent’s Park Theatre, London; Monday 25th June 2018.

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