The Turn of the Screw

NI Opera create a creepily atmospheric version of Britten's opera, with mad governesses, ghosts and shadows

The Turn of the Screw, both Henry James's 1898 original novella and Benjamin Britten's 1954 operatic adaptation, is a nasty, twisty little story, full of implication, obsession and madness. NI Opera's production at the Lyric Theatre captures the right edge of dysfunction lying beneath the proper 1800s facade.

A young governess, never named but played by Dubliner Fiona Murphy, is employed to take care of two young orphans in a country estate. Immediately and tremendously infatuated by her blithe employer, she agrees to his one condition: that she refrain from contacting him in any way regarding his niece and nephew's welfare. She is to be their sole guardian.

It is a daunting responsibility, but one the governess accepts willingly – particularly once she
meets the charming, sweet-natured Miles and Flora. Thomas Copeland and Lucia Vernon turn in impressively nuanced performances as the youngsters. It soon becomes clear that dark secrets haunt the Bly estate, secrets only the children are privy to.

The redoubtable housekeeper Mrs Grose (Yvonne Howards) primly describes the governess's predecessors, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint (Giselle Allen and Andrew Tortise) as 'too free', both with the children and each other. Although both are dead now, the governess, desperate to protect her charges from corruption, believes they aren't gone.

Donning sensible shoes and a green cardigan for the role, Murphy is a convincingly unbalanced governess. The heroine of the piece she might be, but her strange, pawing adoration of young Miles seems no more welcome than Quint's attention.

Murphy, who only recently transitioned to playing soprano roles, conveys the governess's strange transports and fancies with impressive range. The panicked flight of her voice captures the precise note of hysteria, but never slips out of her control.

It is a nice contrast to Allen's portrayal of the previous governess, the red-haired, black-clad Miss Jessel. Where Murphy's governess is anxious and highly-strung, Jessel is studied and careful. Although she spends perhaps the least amount of time on stage, her still, staring face and strong vocals make an impression.

It would have been easy for both performers to slip over the edge into melodrama, but director Oliver Mears keeps it on the right side of the line. There are a few odd directorial choices – a rather odd striptease by the governess that seemed apropos of nothing, for example (the undergarments of the period meant it was not particularly titillating) – but on the whole Mears runs a tightly choreographed production.

The most striking performance of the night, however, comes from Tortise. Despite competition from Howard, who takes the least romantic role in the play and gives Mrs Grose a steady dignity, and the young Copeland and Vernon, Tortise's ghostly valet captures the imagination. His sidling, rich-voiced performance of Quint reveals not just the unwholesome hunger of the character, but the charisma that he must have possessed as well.

Of particular note is the scene where he terrorises the young Miles into stealing a letter for him. The previously smooth tones of his voice spit out staccato notes and sudden dissonance. It is easy to imagine the sway he would have had over the house when alive.

Convincing as Tortise is as the restless ghost of Quint, however, James's text makes a virtue out of ambiguity. The author avoids pinning down anything so prosaic as a fact in the narrative. Britten's version makes some elements more explicit, such as the suggestion of paedophilia, but on the whole preserves that sense of not quite knowing what is going on.

Are the ghosts real, or are they figments of the governess's isolation and overheated imagination? Was Mrs Grose so upstanding? Are Miles and Flora playing some cruel game with their governess? Who knows?

The set design by Annemarie Woods and lighting heighten that sense of unreality. The folding, paper grey backdrops suggest a child's pop-up book, where a diorama of stiff-cardboard unfolds as the page is turned. Shifts in angles and perspective create long corridors, secret corners and angled rooms.

Shadows are everywhere, cast in sharp-edged multiples by Kevin Treacy’s light design. The replication seems to hint at the various interpretations of the events in the story, as if all the possibilities are being played out on stage at once.

In one scene Quint's ghost sits on Miles's bed to pet him, but only Miles's shadow is cast on the wall. Assuming that was deliberate, and not just a critic reading too much into something, it is a subtle, evocative bit of design. And must have been a complex bit of choreography and blocking.

Tying it all together is Britten’s compelling, occasionally dissonant score. Conductor Nicholas Chalmers uses strings and tarnished sounding bells to ratchet up the tension, interspersed with the sweetness of the children’s songs, ‘Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son’ and ‘Lavender Blue’. The drums when they make an appearance are effective, but a little overpowering in the Lyric space.

The Turn of the Screw eschews guts and gore, but remains one of the more elegantly disturbing creations of both James and Britten. (NI Opera make mention in the programme notes that Britten ‘became infatuated’ with the 12 year old who originally played Miles.) This production of The Turn of the Screw by NI Opera captures the creeping discomfit and uncertainty that makes it so effective.

It is easy to see why the Lyric is sold-out for this performance. The opera is eminently enjoyable, the performers bring both conviction and well-honed voices to the role and the whole production is tied seamlessly together. Another feather in NI Opera's cap.

NI Opera will be taking The Turn of the Screw to the Buxton Festival in Derbyshire in July