sat 04/04/2020

The Turn of the Screw, ENO | reviews, news & interviews

The Turn of the Screw, ENO

The Turn of the Screw, ENO

A screw that fails to turn much horror

Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw is first and foremost a psychological horror. And psychological horrors are all about rocking the mental boat. Capsizing the mental boat. Sinking the mental boat. David McVicar’s production of The Turn of the Screw for the English National Opera does not rock the mental boat. He doesn't rock any boat. I'm not sure McVicar is in a boat. He plays the work so supremely safe, so PG-safe, so two-condom safe, that I feel McVicar is nowhere near a boat; I imagine him on dry land, in a deck chair sipping a piña colada, flicking through his Key Stage 1 on rocking the mental boat. The words that first came to mind as I watched the production were: "spooky", Edwardian, safe, yawn, zzz.

So we’re in a gloomy, “spooky” Edwardian drawing room. It’s open-plan, familiar Edwardian bits of furniture – shapely wooden legs, well-upholstered chairs, an upright - scattered around the stage. The exterior intrudes upon the interior: leaves downstage, ivy creeping up the insides of the back windows, the porous French windows shifting and sliding in front of us, never walling anything off, always letting people, beds and paedophilic ghosts through. Are we perhaps watching the material manifestation of the inside of a messy Edwardian mind? That of the governess’s, perhaps? Or the minds of the two children whom she has at first reluctantly, then quite enthusiastically, taken under her care?

Whatever the case, there are paedophilic ghosts in this tastefully messy house: the apparitions of former valet Peter Quint and former governess Miss Jessel. And unless we are to believe that Henry James (who wrote the original story upon which Myfanwy Piper based the libretto) and Benjamin Britten wanted this to be a straightforward bedtime spook-fest, we have to assume that one or more of the characters are conjuring these vapours up.

So who is it? The real challenge for the director lies herein, in trying to balance the three possibilities without tipping in favour of one outright. One should feel both that the children and the governess could be conjuring up the demons, and that the ghosts might be real and possessing the children after all. McVicar manages to convince us of none of the above.

Let me just put on the record that the children act brilliantly. They gurn and cackle and grow more and more monstrous as the drama unfolds well. And it has to be said that they both, Charlie Manton (Miles) and Nazan Fikret (Flora), sing without flaw and with a remarkable amount of maturity. But they are still just gurning and cackling. What they have been told to do holds absolutely no surprises – there’s almost a moment where Flora, curving her back back, assumes the shape of spider like in The Exorcist but the rest is Key Stage 1.

The governess is even less successful. I fear some of this was the fault of Rebecca Evans, who seemed to have a tendency to overact. But it is still with McVicar that most of the blame must lie. Nowhere does the direction ever even hint at suggesting that the governess is hallucinating or that she is suffering from Münchhausen’s Syndrome by Proxy (my own theory for why the horror is unfolding), though the libretto heavily suggests something like this might be going on. The hyperactivity and naivety of the governess's early enthusiasm, the speed of her fall into desperation and fear, and her use of the children as some sort of emotional collateral throughout seem to point in this direction.

Michael Colvin’s Quint and Cheryl Barker’s Jessel – though not especially spirit-like in form - do at least manage to disorient and disturb somewhat through their plangent singing and soulless manner. Ann Murray as the housekeeper Mrs Grose didn’t impress.

The only thing that did almost freak me out in the appropriate way was the music. Sir Charles Mackerras – receiving a round of applause of such warmth that I wondered if the much loved 84-year-old might be about to bow out – presented a clean and cogent case for the music's diaphanous moments and a ferocious one for its passages of pungency.

There are many other things going on in this work that McVicar tried to explore with varying degrees of success: the loss of the children's innocence, the loss of the governess's maturity. There's of course plenty of Britten exercising his own paedophilic guilt in here too.  But it was only late on after the opera had finished that a friend of mine offered me yet another take. That what we were seeing was in fact two different dramas: from the children's perspective a fairy-tale, a scene from the Brothers Grimm; from the governess's a full-on Ibsen play. This really did capsize the mental boat, forcing me to have a little lie-down.

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