The Turn of the Screw review – Britten's opera chills the spine as darkness falls

Regent’s Park Open Air theatre, London
This superb production creeps into every corner of the outdoor space, as the battle for children’s souls intensifies

Britten in the park? A ghost story in an outdoor setting on a perfect summer’s night? It sounds improbable but this joint venture between the Open Air theatre and English National Opera works superbly well and, in the second half, you even feel a chill to the spine as you watch a battle for possession of children’s souls in the gathering dusk.

It helps that Timothy Sheader, as director, and his designer, Soutra Gilmour, know how to use the space. Bly, the remote country house at which a governess arrives to take charge of the children, Miles and Flora, is here seen as a dilapidated conservatory surrounded by mounds of unruly grass. The action also erupts around the whole theatre. The prologue is sung by William Morgan from the front stalls. Peter Quint’s night-time summons to Miles takes place from the auditorium and the blanched figure of Miss Jessel stalks the side aisles. Even the orchestra, glimpsed behind an upstage wall and excellently conducted by Toby Purser, takes on a ghostly quality.

Debate still rages as to what Britten’s opera, with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper based on the 1898 Henry James novella, is finally about. Are we watching the governess’s attempt to rescue the children from the corrupting clutches of the ghostly Quint and Miss Jessel? Or could the ghosts be projections of the troubled mind of the governess herself? The latter has become a fashionable interpretation, but Sheader’s production left me feeling that we were watching a genuine contest with forces of evil. Without disguising the governess’s complexity (like Quint, she says of Miles, “You shall be mine”), Anita Watson powerfully makes her a woman driven more by moral anxiety than by luridly subjective fantasy.

The Turn of the Screw
Intense … Elin Pritchard as Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw. Photograph: Johan Persson

Britten’s rich score is full of strange echoes: as Humphrey Carpenter points out in his biography, the governess’s musical identity is surprisingly tied up with that of Quint. Yet Sheader’s production, without being heavy-handed, unequivocally suggests this is an opera about child abuse. Miles and Flora, from the start, seem dangerously knowing. Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, tells the governess that Quint “was free with everyone”.

The key moment, however, comes in Quint’s night call to Miles. The expressive features of the extraordinary Daniel Alexander Sidhom light up as he hears Quint’s voice, strips off his clothes and dons a purple shirt replicating that of the ghost. The intimacy between them is underlined when, as Miles plays the piano, Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s Quint sinisterly turns the pages.

Two casts share the roles during the week’s run: the first night one was impeccable. Elen Willmer as Flora, precisely echoing the gestures of Elin Pritchard’s Miss Jessel, imply their bond is as strong as that of Miles and Quint. Janis Kelly, who has sung every female role in the opera, makes Mrs Grose a memorably troubled figure: not the conventional homebody, but a woman who palpably loves the children and who at one point clutches a pillar in fear for their safety.

It’s a fine production that gathers in intensity as darkness falls. But it struck me that the real villain of Britten’s opera, as of James’s story, is the children’s unseen guardian: it is he who, by his negligence, commits the ultimate crime of leaving the innocent to their terrible fate.

• At Regent’s Park Open Air theatre, London, until 30 June. Box office: 0844 826 4242.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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