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The Turn of the Screw

Benjamin Britten
Garsington Opera
Wormsley Estate, Stokenchurch
to

This production is outstanding in every way. Louisa Muller trusts in the team of extremely talented performers to bring out the story without cluttering their performance. From the thrilling 13-piece ensemble to the bare but beautiful set, each element shines brightly.

Britten completed The Turn of the Screw, his setting of Henry James's ghost story, in 1954 and it has been a popular piece ever since. In a relatively normal setting, a governess (Sophie Bevan) arrives to take charge of two lovely and polite young children. The only unusual request is that she never bothers their guardian but takes sole charge. Soon, the Governess starts to see the ghosts of the previous staff: Mrs Jessel, the governess, and the groundsman, Peter Quint. She believes the children to be haunted by the pair and is determined to drive the devil out, but the result is poor Milo’s death.

Bly House, appealingly designed by Christopher Oram, is effectively a glasshouse. The story naturally gets scarier as we return after the interval. Tall glass doors surround a cobbled space, at the front a small stream. Just the most necessary of props are used. In act 2, a grand piano has entered the room and a schoolroom desk. The biggest change is to the stage floor—and a quarter of the cobbled stage subsides to make the lake. The minimal props and large open space allow for smooth transitions and manage to be suggestive rather than prescriptive.

What aren’t minimal are the voluptuous black dresses worn by the Governess, Mrs Jessel, and Mrs Groves. It’s particularly satisfying to watch the wide, hooped skirts soaking up the lake and then dragging the water across the floor.

Musically, this performance is exceptionally strong. Described as a chamber opera, The Turn of the Screw comprises a six-person cast with three female leads, a man and two children. This leaves a lot of responsibly for the youngsters playing Flora and Miles (Elen Willmer and Leo Jemison) but they more than rise to challenge.

Britten has composed for just a 13-piece orchestra, but it feels far larger. Richard Farnes conducts with great precision, slowly ratcheting up the tension as the evening progresses and lavishes much detailed attention to Britten’s fine sonorities and interesting instrumentation.

Bevan demonstrates great vocal control, but in true moments of desperation she really opens up and the power of her voice conveys the poor Governess’s desperation perfectly.

Edward Lyon and Broderick are superb as Quint and Jessel; Lyon, a fine vocal actor, floats haunting melismas through the auditorium and unsettles as he hovers just behind Miles. Broderick produces an almost Wagnerian Mrs Jessel, her slow procession and wild eyes chilling—she seems to wants the new Governess to suffer along with her. Kathleen Wilkinson makes a fine Mrs Grose, warm and bright bustling around the house.

Jemison and Willmer are exceptional, Jemison’s angelic choirboy treble a stark contrast to the unsettling delivery of far too grown-up dialogue. Willmer played Flora in Regent Park’s production and is a confident young performer who I'm sure will go far.

Louise Muller directs a superbly cogent piece of theatre, subtle and eerie in equal measure.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis