Monday, 14 March 2016

Britten - The Turn of the Screw (NI Opera, 2016 - Belfast)

Benjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

NI Opera, 2016

Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Katie Bird, Garbhan McEnoy, Sam Furness, Giselle Allen, Yvonne Howard, Lucia Vernon-Long

Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 11 March 2016

There are many ways to explore and interpret the themes and the suggestion laid down by Benjamin Britten in his adaptation of Henry James' sinister little tale. Even in a revival of its 2012 production, NI Opera's The Turn of the Screw can reveal other facets of this endlessly fascinating little piece with a few changes of casting and a little tweak of directorial emphasis here and there. Essentially, the tone and the ambiguity of the production remain largely the same, but the whole idea of fear dominating the direction of the drama seemed to be more pronounced in a way that opened up other possibilities.

Fear, of course, is an integral part of what The Turn of the Screw is all about; it is a ghost story after all. It's perhaps not necessary though for the audience to feel fear in the way that a traditional ghost story sets out to do. That would actually be harder to achieve, since everyone has different things that scare them and evidently not everyone believes in ghosts. One of the other problems of this approach is that ghost stories aren't quite as scary when you know what is coming, and I have to admit that I didn't find this production quite as chilling as I remember it being four years ago. Despite this, the sense of fear in the 2016 revival of the production was palpable and effective in other ways.

The Turn of the Screw is more a study of fear than it is a traditional tale to scare the reader or the listener. Fear is contagious in the way that it spreads through Bly household here, and it isn't too much of stretch to consider it a model for how fear spreads in a wider community. Henry James didn't need to overstate the psychological implications of repressed impulses of the Governess in relation to the Victorian society of his time, and the wider implications don't need to be be spelled out for a modern audience either if the telling of the tale is true. When you have ghosts in a story this could present a problem, but the key to the story lies in how convincing we find the perspective and the actions of the Governess.

In as far as it was sung and played by Katie Bird, the importance of the role of the Governess as the propagator of fear in The Turn of the Screw is wonderfully effective. Fear, or at least anxiety that will later develop into fear, is evident from her first appearance on the stage just after the narrator's prologue. Will she like her new post? Will the children be nice? Will her employer be pleased with her? These concerns develop into a kind of over-protectiveness that infects Mrs Grose and leads, arguably, to a kind of mass hallucination that manifests the fear in the form of ghosts. Or it could be that the constant watching over Flora and Miles and pushing adult concerns down on them doesn't allow the children to be children.

What could be considered to be normal healthy behaviour for children, even if they are just a little bit naughty, is viewed with suspicion by the anxious Governess. It could be that the Governess, prompted by Mrs Grose's distaste for former employees, dredges up issues related to Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, conflates them with her own complexes and twists them in the minds of the children and the Governess into something more sinister. A lot of this is just speculation, and it's very much dependent upon what one wants to read into the work, but the greatness of The Turn of the Screw is that the ambiguity it creates around such situations allows events to be interpreted in a variety of ways.

It's harder to retain that sense of ambiguity on the stage, where concrete decisions and interpretations of one sort or another have to be made, but I think Oliver Mears' production manages to do this very well. I've already covered how the direct and simple stage designs work effectively to open up and close down the drama in my review of the original 2012 production at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, and it still works here. What was great about the revival of the production, seen this time at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, was experiencing how well the singing and the musical performances were also attuned to project this sense of 'fear' consuming everyone who comes into contact with the Governess.

Principally, a lot of that was to do with Katie Bird's interpretation of the role. This was an outstanding singing performance that projected the fears of the Governess outward. There's a balance to be found between appearing to be neurotic or all out crazy and just letting anxiety break down the Governess's grip on reality, and Katie Bird covered that gradual disintegration almost imperceptibly. The Governess isn't aware of the fear she is sowing, believing her behaviour to be reasonable, proportionate, and indeed proper, but there's an edge of hysteria that becomes more and more apparent as events spiral and ghosts appear, and that was well integrated into the performance.

What is marvellous is not only could you detect this in how Bird sang and played the role, but the acoustics of the Lyric and Nicholas Chalmers' conducting allowed you hear how well Britten also scores and ramps up the tension, tightening the screw with little musical runs on the piano and the double bass. It's far from just eerie atmospherics and is suggestive of something much more complex in its psychology. Having just won an award for his ETO Hoffmann, Sam Furness was a good fit for this production's Peter Quint, while Giselle Allen reprised her chilling Miss Jessel. It's telling however that this production and the careful direction didn't allow either of the ghostly apparitions to overshadow Bird's Governess. Garbhan McEnoy brought a brittle vulnerability to Miles, working wonderfully alongside Lucia Vernon-Long's innocently teasing Flora to keep that delicious sense of ambiguity that is exploited so well on every level by NI Opera's still effective production of this ever intriguing work.

Links: NI Opera