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The Turn of the Screw is pitch perfect at Garsington Opera

The production begins in the light, but where will it end?

The Turn of the Screw (Photo: Julian Guidera)

We generally associate ghost stories with the dark, so it is something of a paradox that the best productions of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw are often those that are presented in the most light and airy spaces. This is because starting the evening in broad daylight, as English National Opera’s 2018 production at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre was able to do, enables the story to cover the largest possible trajectory as the increasingly intense atmosphere is accompanied by the descent of night. The contrasts that the light and dark bring allow us to feel the sickening cloud of doom hanging permanently overhead, while also believing there are actually ways out of the problem, or even that there is not one to begin with. This mirrors the Governess’s own state of mind who is looking for every opportunity to convince herself that the children are innocent, while also holding in her head a picture of the inescapable worst.

The first revival of Louisa Muller’s 2019 production for Garsington Opera certainly makes the most of its glass and steel theatre as outside light floods in at the start. Christopher Oram’s gorgeous set comprises high walls with huge arched windows to create an elegant room that might be found in any reasonably grand house. Their rusted quality also illustrates how Bly House has a history by hinting at the many people who have passed through its doors. The entire set is actually positioned at a slight angle to the stage so that it disconcerts us, albeit in a very mild way. One corner juts out over it, and in the triangle that is formed on the other side as the set falls back from the line of the stage there are a few inches of water that depict the lake. In the first half, the eerie sight of Miss Jessel slowly walking along the gangway outside the theatre in the daylight before entering the stage by walking through, and hence emerging from, the lake is just as chilling as it is effective.

If the space is impressive in its own right, what fills it is no less so as every part of the evening works together to create a compelling experience. Verity Wingate reveals a beautifully clean and glistening sound as the Governess, and her interaction with the children as they play with balls and swords is highly realistic. As adults often do, she takes a backseat for some parts of the games but when she intervenes she injects her own wit so that after Miles pretends to be killed in a duel she plays the classical weeping widow, alluding to traditions that she would understand far more than the children who might simply find her actions funny. She also acts as an overseer, ready to intervene when one moment with the ball looks as if it might get rough. When, however, at the start of Act II the children advance towards her in masks that make them look like Quint and Miss Jessel, we see how the balance of power has altered and that they are now the ones controlling her.

“…the light and dark… allow us to feel the sickening cloud of doom hanging permanently overhead…”

Robert Murray (Photo: Alice Pennefather)

Robert Murray as the Prologue and Quint asserts his full yet nuanced tenor to great effect. As Quint, he is made up to look quite foppish so that there is a certain charm to him, even if his evil and coercive ways can still be seen beneath the surface. Helena Dix is excellent as Miss Jessel as, in her enormous dress, she seems to rise out of the lake and glide across the stage. Her soprano is both haunting and persuasive, and she carries the look of one who has been so mistreated that her very focus now derives from simply not being able to care anymore.

Carolyn Holt, replacing Susan Bickley on opening night as Mrs Grose, is splendid, with her relatively light voice feeling very mature on the one hand yet extremely fresh on the other. One really senses that there is genuine friendship between she and the Governess as the pair build up rapport extremely quickly. The children are double cast over the run with Maia Greaves and Adrianna Forbes-Dorant playing Flora, and Ben Fletcher and Isaac Rogers singing Miles. The quality of Greaves and Fletcher’s singing and acting is plain to see with Greaves writing ambiguity into all of her actions so that it is not clear whether she is bathing or drowning her doll in the lake. Fletcher too has real presence so that rarely has it felt so obvious that Miles’s loaded conversations with the Governess may actually be cries for help, with him being prevented from stating his fears directly because he believes Quint is listening to his every word. Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting of the Philharmonia Orchestra is nigh on perfect as the sound is precise and balanced yet sinuous and mysterious in equal measure. 

Act II retains the same set but introduces a piano and writing desk that the plot requires to the room. In addition, the small triangular lake has now burst its banks and flooded a section of Bly House, thus revealing how Quint and Miss Jessel can no longer be kept at a distance and are working their way deeper into everyone’s lives. There is still variation so that when Miles and Flora head to church, light, courtesy of Malcolm Rippeth, floods through the open doors and offers a temporary respite from the emerging horrors. However, with it now being dark outside, the direction of Act II feels irreversible, with the ending feeling all the more impactful for being handled in a measured way that really makes us think about what we are witnessing. The implication too that the present Governess is going the same way as Miss Jessel also leaves its mark, and the accumulative effect of so many well thought through ideas is a performance that succeeds on every level.   

• Garsington Opera’s 2022 season continues until 31 July. For details of all of its productions and tickets visit its website.