The Turn of the Screw at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
A horror story in the most classical sense, Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of Henry James’s shocking 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw is nothing short of spine-chilling, hair-raising terror. The composer’s spirit must have been commanding the cast and orchestra at Regent’s Park Theatre on Tuesday evening as their performance encompassed the fear, uncertainty and discomfort originally intended by Myfanwy Piper’s chilling libretto.
In a tale of corrupted innocence, unorthodox desires and a battle with one’s inner identity, artistic director Timothy Sheader manages to uphold the unspoken truths of Miles (Sholto McMillan) and Flora (Ellie Bradbury), orphaned children with a dark past left under the care of their new Governess (Rhian Lois). Without ever truly uttering the words of the evil happenings that took place in the 19th-century Victorian countryside dwelling, the cast – along with the outstanding work of conductor Toby Purser and the English National Opera – nevertheless instil a level of dread and trepidation amongst viewers at the mere insinuation.
Britten’s take on the original novella has been subject to debate for decades: are there, in fact, spirits haunting the decrepit, forgotten glass house, or has the Governess succumbed to a shroud of her deranged psychosis?
The tragedy begins with Elgan Llŷr Thomas emerging from the stalls to sing the prologue, a touch that sets off an air of spookiness as he previously sits undetected amongst audience members, only revealing himself upon his first note. The intro sets the tone for an evening filled with perfectly executed ghostly appearances that leave viewers startled every time.
The first appearances of the evil spirits Quint (William Morgan) and Miss Jessel (Rachel Lloyd), vile child abusers who wreak havoc as they haunt their former master’s home, are executed seamlessly. Sheader and designer Soutra Gilmour certainly manage to use the Open Air Theatre’s space to its utmost potential, as they provide a deeply disturbing balance of eerie imagery, cast placement and a hidden-in-plain-sight orchestra that only adds to the ethereal quality of the production. Whether the characters emerge from pockets of darkened trees behind the stage or from above the lower stalls, they do so with perfect precision.
Purser and his orchestra give an impeccable performance – each note exactly mirrors what is happening on stage. Most notably, their flawless manipulation of the melodic tone of the scene – from dark and dreary to light and innocent depending who is speaking – provides for a superb back-and-forth in the battle for Miles’s soul in a second half that truly captivates the audience.
The story of inner-conflict and unacceptable longings certainly reflected Britten’s own battle as a closeted homosexual in the early 20th century, and perhaps this is why the opera is able to encompass such a deep, dark war of selves.
Photos: Johan Persson
The Turn of the Screw is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from 22nd until 30th June 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.