One of the questions that strikes any reader of Henry James’s 1898 novella is whether the unnamed Governess (undoubtedly one of the most unreliable narrators in literature) really is seeing ghosts, or if she was being driven towards madness by a repressed imagination. When re-reading it in preparation for Edward Dick’s production of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera, it seemed extraordinary just how quickly she jumps to her conclusions – not only are these figures the walking dead, but their intention is to ‘contaminate’ the angelic children in her care (surmised before she learns that Peter Quint, the remote Master’s late valet, was ‘too free’ with young Miles). She seems all too keen to assume the worst, so that she can ‘save’ them and earn the attention of her charges’ unobtainable uncle.
Dick’s minimalist production for Opera UpClose seems to promote the idea of the Governess’s insanity, choosing to frame the action by portraying her as a patient in a psychiatric hospital, not that that really ‘proves’ anything either way. Surely anyone who claimed to have witnessed what she has seen would be labelled ‘mad.’ The isolated country house is represented by Signe Beckmann’s monochromatic grey set with three doors. The only props on stage are two wooden chairs (which the Governess clings to constantly) and there’s blank screen onto which scenes from the idyllic summer are projected. The lighting, however, isn’t quite atmospheric enough and the elongated stage at the King’s Head isn’t particularly effective when it comes to creating a sense of intimacy and claustrophobia. The production eschews restrictive corsets and rustling taffeta for trainers and T-shirts emblazoned with cartoon characters (Miles’s Superman T-shirt provides a wry dig at the Governess’s own hero complex), while the Governess, tellingly, is clad all in white.
The Turn of the Screw is deeply rooted in nineteenth-century sensitivities about class (particularly the idea of a lady having a sexual relationship with a man who is not a gentleman), requiring a certain amount of creativity to make it resonate with a contemporary setting. Laura Casey’s marshmallow-munching Mrs Grose becomes a slovenly babysitter and overgrown child, dressed in a pink velour tracksuit. While the grotesquery is overstated, she all the same retains the cryptic knowingness of James’s Mrs Grose.
There’s something very solid about James’s ghosts, who aren’t fleeting spectres at all; the Governess’s description of Quint’s appearance, right down to the length of his whiskers and the colour of his eyebrows, could hold up in court. The intensity of the eye contact between the ghosts and Governess is underplayed, the scenes between the ghosts alone being the most successfully gothic. David Menezes’sQuint and Catrine Kirkman’s Miss Jessel are distinctive from the living characters by louche sophistication as they hatch their malevolent plans like something out of a film noir; Quint clad in leather and Jessel in a slinky cocktail dress. Menezes masterfully communicates the confidence and dangerous allure of this arch-manipulator, his tenor voice equally lulling and commanding, with Kirkman seductively conveying his ally’s disturbed compliance.
Katie Bird is vocally stunning as the Governess and delivers a very credible portrayal of an idealistic young woman’s descent into a state that defies comprehension, while never ceasing to justify her actions to herself. The children are remarkably assured: Eleanor Burke sings Flora beautifully, while Samuel Woof ably captures Miles’s eerie, otherworldly creepiness. Musical director David Eaton is not so much an accompanist as he is a one-man orchestra, playing with exceptional flair and passion.
The Turn of the Screw is so open to interpretation that it’s probably impossible to stage it in a way that’s going to please everyone (I personally don’t sympathise with Dick’s interpretation of Miles’s demise). While Dick’s production is thin on full-blooded horror, it’s nevertheless a sleek and impressively sung rendition of a challenging opera.