The Turn of the Screw – Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Director: Oliver Mears
Music: Benjamin Britten
Libretto: Myfanwy Piper
Reviewer: Kevin McCluskey

Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw has inspired numerous adaptations, including two film versions (The Innocents and The Others) and Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera. The story, about a governess who fears that the children are being corrupted by the spirits of the previous governess and valet, is appealing in its ambiguity about whether the work is a straightforward ghost story or a depiction of a woman’s descent into insanity. Whereas the valet Peter Quint (Sam Furness) and governess Miss Jessel (Giselle Allen) remain silent in James’ story, Piper and Britten have them sing at length about their tumultuous relationship and deaths – a scene in the second act with only the two of them onstage suggest they exist independently away from the imaginations of other characters, strongly suggesting that the ghosts are to be interpreted as ‘real’. The opera still does have much ambiguity to it, and interpretations of the supernatural element vary in each staging.

This production, directed by Oliver Mears for NI Opera, is beautifully sung throughout though, occasionally, the acoustics of the venue made some of the libretto difficult to comprehend, particularly in scenes with the governess (Katie Bird) and Mrs Grose (Yvonne Howard), both sopranos, sparring over the children. Britten’s decision to have the boy Miles (Garbhan McEnoy) be sung by a treble adds to the eeriness of the piece, particularly in the closing moments of act one sing in innocent high tones “I am bad”. The mix of the sinister and the innocent is evoked with Piper’s use of W.B. Yeats’ line from The Second Coming, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’. Britten’s often tense and foreboding score repeats a twelve-note theme at the beginning of each scene, but also draws on melodies from hymns and children’s nursery rhymes.

Mears appears to have settled on an interpretation of the ghosts as entirely real, which has positive implications for the design elements of the show but deflates the tension, particularly in the second actor, surrounding the governess. Initially, Quint and Jessel appear upstage behind a screen bathed in a green light, creating an effective ghostly air. Yet in many scenes both characters are wholly present and corporeal, inhabiting the same space as the other characters and freely interacting with them; in the attempted possession scene at the end of act one, both characters sit and caress the children as they try to sway them with their words.

Annemarie Woods’s set design coupled with Kevin Treacy’s lighting design are the most impressive elements of the production. A series of flats painted to resemble wooden panelling has a doorway through which the audience can see another set of flats. The two layers are shifted and folded easily to create multiple perspectives of scenes and quickly show the shift to another part of the house at Bly, with the second set of flats painted with stairways and doors. They move to create a large expanse of space for the exterior scenes. At times, the set is almost cinematic in its ability to quickly change locations. Angular beams of light shining through the doorway create large shadows on the walls in a nod to expressionist horror films.

Quite often the boy Miles is the focus of attention, and in one striking instant, the set and lighting combine to create a pyramid of shadows around Miles as he sits alone on the stage. Most impressively, a black and white image of the estate is printed on a scrim, dissolving to reveal the set, also largely painted in grays and blacks, calling to mind Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

Runs until 12 March 2016 | Image: courtesy of the Lyric Theatre

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