The length of the silence before applause broke out which greeted the end of both acts of Britten’s 1954 chamber opera The Turn of the Screw at Snape on Saturday is a tribute to the impact of the young cast and the Britten-Pears Orchestra under Garry Walker as well as the dramatic flair of Neil Bartlett’s staging, Kandis Cook ’s designs and Chris Davey’s lighting.
This was music as psychological theatre with the “screw” theme variations of the passages linking the scenes tightened remorselessly by what we were seeing as well as hearing.
From her first appearance, motionless with her back to us on a bare raised scaffold as the audience came into the theatre space, Anna Devin’s Governess was a woman at odds with herself as well as with her post at Bly. Vocally, she dominated her scenes but none of the other five singers could remotely be described as supporting cast. Every note hit home; if only the enunciation of the words had been as good.
The storyteller of the prologue was Laurence Wiliford, as complacent in tweeds and a bow tie as any academic of the 1950s. His transformation into the slinking, lithe Peter Quint, as fluid in movement as in vocal line, dominated the scenes with the children and worked especially well in the quartet with Miss Jessel, the Governess and Mrs Grose. Outside the Maltings, the River Alde teased at its reed beds; inside the theatre it felt as though some primeval and evil essence had sucked itself up from the sludge and was now coiling itself around human victims.
Not that you could call either Merrin Lazyan’s Flora or Crispin Lord’s Miles passive victims of abuse. Lazyan was knowingly pert in voice and manner and Lord, playing Miles as a little older than in some other productions, twisted the women into playing along with him just as surely as his haunting leitmotif of “malo"; stays with us after the opera has ended. Norah King was an impassioned Miss Jessel with a vocal range to match. Catharin Carew ’s Mrs Grose was a real personality with a dark edge to her mezzo as well a clear top notes.
This staging made a virtue of its apparent difficulties. The orchestra might have sounded better in a conventional sunken pit but its visibility never really became a distraction, anymore than did the use of the auditorium’s own doors for entrances and exits. A stage bare of everything but one chair for the first act became as cluttered with furniture previously ranged against the rear wall of the hall in the second act as the Governess’s own mental stage. The lighting shifted us through the rooms and grounds of Bly as surely as its human and ghostly inhabitants.