Rich Pickings on The Turn of the Screw
As a child I was brought up with Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, being able to name each instrument as it comes in. Then when Derek Jarman made the film War Requiem Britten’s work became even close to my heart. So it was with great joy that I heard that Opera North (who I have described as ‘a jewel in Leeds’ cultural crown’) were to revive their 2010 production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.
Myfanwy Piper’s magical libretto is adapted from the story by Henry James and creates a narrative that has the psychological tenseness of any good ghost story. Here there are two ghosts: Peter Quint, which sees Nicholas Watts stepping into the shoes once worn by Britten’s creative partner Peter Pears; and Miss Jessel, played with otherworldly veracity by Eleanor Dennis.
It tells the tale of a governess called to take charge of two practically orphaned children, Flora and Miles. The only other living soul in their house is housekeeper Mrs Grose. But Quint and Jessel remain there too and we are never sure whether they return from Hades to torment or exist only in the minds of the house’s inhabitants.
The way director Alessandro Talevi tackles the difficulty of having an onstage ghost singing is a lot to do with Matthew Haskins magnificent lighting. Haskins dims the stage and highlights the ghosts’ otherness with a subtle spotlight. Much also has to be put down to Madeleine Boyd’s atmospheric yet functional set. It includes a frosted large window at which Quint appears and by which the young Miles sits in anticipation of the spirit’s apparition.
Britten’s music, of course, plays a large part too, beautifully presented by conductor of the Orchestra of Opera North, Leo McFall. The orchestra lives up to it’s incredibly high standards and the score contains a leitmotiv for the scenes with either Quint or Jessel. Boyd’s costumes are quite a wonder too, emphasising the formality of the action’s setting.
Tim Gasiorek is a revelation as Miles; Jennifer Clark also as Flora; while Sarah Tynan’s Governess is simply sublime, pitch perfect, sweet and sonorous. This is matched skillfully by Heather Shipp as Mrs Grose. And on the occasions they duet together something very fine indeed happens. But Watts’ Quint really does steal the show, amazingly conjuring up the ‘devil’ in his character that torments all he crosses.
This is Opera North at their very best: accessible yet still complex; experimental but ever true to the original at heart. Another resounding tour de force for a company that continue to both entertain and enlighten.
Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 21 February at Leeds Grand Theatre. See Opera North website for tour dates and times.