Theatre review: The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw, Ustinov Studio, artistic director: Deborah Warner; director: Isabelle Kettle.
Words by Emma Clegg

First performed in 1954, The Turn of the Screw was Benjamin Britten’s third chamber opera. At the age of 18 the composer had listened to a BBC radio production of Henry James’ 1898 novella, which led him to read the story, describing it as “glorious and eerie” and “an incredible masterpiece”. So when long-time friend Myfanwy Piper (artist John Piper’s wife) later suggested an operatic treatment to him, there was no debate. Piper wrote the libretto, the first she wrote for Britten. 

The story, featuring a cast of four adults and two children, is set in a remote Victorian estate in the country and plays out over two acts, each of eight scenes. A young Governess is engaged for two orphans, Miles and Flora, by their Guardian and instructed never to contact him. She finds the children charming, but their behaviour becomes increasingly challenging. She then encounters the ‘ghosts’ of the Guardian’s former valet Quint and the children’s former governess Miss Jessel, both of whom make repeated and unsettling (yet unspecified to the audience) demands on the children. The ghosts keep appearing and the narrative probes the motives of each character, tracking how they are all drawn into the darkness of the psyche.

The appeal for Britten was around the ambiguity of James’ story, and its themes of corruption and innocence, real and make-believe, all common motifs in his operas. What happened to Quint and Miss Jessel before their deaths? Are their ghosts real or imagined by the Governess and the two children? Are the children possessed? Why is the Guardian absent and unforthcoming? What is the meaning of the tragic ending? The power is in the not knowing – we never find out in James’s novella, and Britten keeps us guessing too.

When the Governess agrees to her appointment in the Prologue, Britten’s tonal 12-note Theme kicks in, with the assistance of two grand pianos at each side of the stage (played by Aleksandra Myslek and Henry Websdale) and a flute plus alto and piccolo by Carys Gittins. Rejecting the 12-note serial music of other composers of the time (where the 12 notes of the chromatic scale – the black and white notes on the piano – are organised into a row, then used to create permutations), the Theme “employs all 12 notes of the chromatic scale in a consistent rhythmic pattern” [English National Opera].

The ‘Screw’ uses a sequence of alternating rising fourths and falling minor thirds. The A major notes represent the world of the Governess; the A flat notes the world of Quint and Miss Jessel. “The tonality of the variations and scenes of Act I ascend from one to the other, while those of Act II descend by an exactly inverted route: the screw is turned and released.” [ENO]. I did not know that when I visited, neither is it mentioned in the programme; I wish I had known, because it fascinates me in retrospect. (Still time for another visit – it’s on until 23 December.)

Because of the extended schedule, there is double-casting, with all characters (apart from the two ghosts) played on different dates by alternating actors. We saw Sarah Gilford as the Governess (a soprano known for her crystal clear voice, her first resonant notes were especially thrilling), and Emma Bell as Mrs Grose the housekeeper (whose soaring soprano clearly builds the imparting of hysteria). Catherine Mulroy as Flora (soprano) and Arlo Murray (treble) as Miles were magnificent in musically and performatively demanding roles, in the first act singing children’s rhymes in and around the adult characters’ conversational deliberations. Later Miles’ haunting tune Malo, described by theopera101 as “one of the creepiest tunes in all of opera”, first introduced in Act 1, is taken up again at the end of the opera by the Governess. The refrain links to the different meanings of the Latin root Malo: ‘I would rather be’; ‘in an apple tree’; ‘than a naughty boy’; ‘in adversity’, and demonstrates the boy as victim. 

Emma Bell as Mrs Grose. Photo Ellie-Kurttz
Arlo Murray as Miles and Sarah Gilford as The Governess. Photo Ellie-Kurttz

The ‘ghosts’ – Xavier Hetherington as Quint (tenor) and Elin Pritchard (soprano) as Miss Jessel – appear on stage as real as the other characters, with their spiritual presence often evoked by performing behind the hanging lengths of the plastic other-world curtain, which captures glimmering strips of light in its folds. The grand pianos create a ‘grand’ structure for the set, with action on the Ustinov’s small stage often happening underneath them (including the children’s first jump-out-of-your-boots appearance).

It was brave to conceive this production at the Ustinov. Because The Turn of the Screw is intense, with demanding, technical music, I think a larger stage and audience seating at more of a distance would have allowed for a more observed evaluation of the troubling spiral of events, and a more convincing portrayal of the characters’ motivations – whose actions feel limited within the space. The Guardian (the newspaper not the children’s) liked the claustrophobic atmosphere, feeling it accentuated the intensity of the narrative; I would have preferred to have felt less tightly packed within the disturbing power of the music and voices, and the unsettling chaos of the situation. Perhaps if I’d done the musical research before I went, I would have felt differently.

In Britten’s opera, Miles falls as part of the tragic ending; this production sees Miles jumping into Quint’s arms, with stirring effect. The meaning here is open to interpretation, with conjecture around towards whom Miles’ line “You devil!” is directed. I’m convinced it’s all down to Quint. But then I like tied-up endings and Turn of the Screw is not an example of that. Visit the Ustinov and make up your own mind.

Main image: Sarah Gilford as The Governess. Photo Ellie-Kurttz

The Turn of the Screw is at Ustinov Studio until 23 December