The Turn of the Screw

Benjamin Britten (score) Myfanwy Piper (libretto -after the story by Henry James)
Opera North
The Lowry, Salford

Eleanor Dennis as Miss Jessel, Sarah Tynan as The Governess and Nicholas Watts as Peter Quint Credit: Tristram Kenton
Nicholas Watts as Peter Quint, Sarah Tynan as The Governess and Tim Gasiorek as Miles Credit: Tristram Kenton
Jennifer Clark as Flora Credit: Tristram Kenton

During the current health crisis, the most frightening sound one might hear at a theatre is someone coughing. Opera North takes a more traditional, and altogether more appealing, approach to creating a scary mood by staging a revival of Benjamin Britten’s gothic horror The Turn of the Screw.

An unnamed Governess (Sarah Tynan) becomes responsible for two children Flora (Jennifer Clark) and Miles (Tim Gasiorek) in an isolated house. The terms of her employment have an odd proviso requiring her never to disturb the children’s guardian with reports of any problems. Initially, the relationship between the Governess and her charges is good but the behaviour of the children begins to deteriorate. Reports of how her predecessor’s lover Peter Quint (Nicholas Watts) exercised a malign influence over the children disturb the Governess and she starts to believe he is continuing to do so from beyond the grave.

Cinema audiences are accustomed to the use of a movie soundtrack to underline plot developments. Benjamin Britten is more subtle; his score does not so much build tension as create unease by sudden shifts in tone. Therefore, the mundane may jump to the eerie. This is particularly the case in the second act where unexpected sharp raps suggest a malevolent creature seeking entry. A vocal solo by Tim Gasiorek is unsettling rather than uplifting. The struggle between the sacred and the profane is captured in a stunning sequence of swirling pastoral music complete with church bells over a scene of the children kneeling. The murky ambiguity of the production makes it hard to determine whether they are at prayer or trying to summon the spirit of Quint back from the dead.

Director Alessandro Talevi explores some uncomfortable options in the opera. There is the disturbing possibility that apparently innocent children can commit acts one might consider evil. Both of the children appear corrupt—Jennifer Clark gives Flora the personality of a minx constantly pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. The angelic face and voice of Tim Gasiorek make the creepy actions of Miles even more disturbing.

Talevi raises unpleasant possibilities about the nature of the relationship between Quint and the children. The behaviour of Miles—kissing the Governess and climbing provocatively into her bed—indicates he has been sexualised much too early.

Most of the shamelessly gothic elements in the production come from Madeleine Boyd’s oppressive set design. An enormous decorative window might be better suited for a cathedral than a house. The use of a four-poster bed, centre stage, for most of the action in the opera encourages speculation events might be taking place in the troubled mind of the Governess.

Sarah Tynan gives a restless, tormented performance showing the psychological strain the Governess is enduring. Tynan moves from timid to intimidating in her relationship with other staff at the house before finding the assault on her beliefs and the sheer terror of events pushing her towards mental breakdown. There is even the sad sense of pride as the Governess considers how well she has fulfilled the brief not to disturb the children’s guardian with reports of any problems.

The Turn of the Screw covers all possible types of horror from gothic to psychological to give audiences a fine night at the opera.

Reviewer: David Cunningham