BWW Review: THE TURN OF THE SCREW, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
As dusk, not so much golden as a portent of the darkness to come, settles, the trees, hitherto friendly and green, become mysterious and black, the haunted house feeling very haunted indeed.
This production - open air and, in my case, seen on an idyllic midsummer evening - shifted its start time to 8pm to capture that magical light for dramatic effect, merely one example of how English National Opera does not just solve the problems of the venue, but uses its potential to the full.
Henry James's novel leaves much to the imagination (in terms of scares and motivations) and Myfanwy Piper's libretto (handily provided with the programme) keeps all the ambiguity alive.
Benjamin Britten feels no such restraint however, the music lurching and tumbling, speaking of minds lost, apparitions threatening, children seeing with the eyes of adults.
We get a few clues from director, Timothy Sheader, who has the children, Miles and Flora, gleefully biting into apples before tossing them away as our introduction to their stolen innocence. There's a warning too of the stakes involved in abandoning children to the tender mercies of adults, shorn of their parents or contact with anyone bearing ties of blood - inevitably, the Mexican border loomed large over Regent's Park.
Reading the Governess becomes the touchstone to how one interprets the story. Is she over-invested in the children, the wrong person at the wrong time, desperate to become the parent they never knew just when they gain the rash confidence of teenagers?
Or is she sent mad by the house, by Miles preternatural sexuality (all this "my dear"-ing) and Flora's ingenue-ish flirtations? Her past is as shrouded as the children's and who knows what horrors she may have witnessed in the hypocritical world of Victorian England? Crudely put - is her a goodie or a baddie?
The music and singing is wonderful, with Daniel Alexander Sidhom and Even Willmer revelations as the children. Teetering on the edge of adulthood in real life, their acting and singing enhance an appalling verisimilitude and lend an authenticity that just would not be there were music school graduates cast as 21 year olds playing 15 year olds. Kids often steal the show with charm in musical theatre productions, but here they steal the show with menace.
Anita Watson, warm but (subtly) just a little too needy as the Governess, holds the opera together, the ghosts real for her, twisting her mind, scrambling her senses as the full impact of the house's history becomes evident. She plays and sings beautifully with Janis Kelly, whose Mrs Grose cannot (or will not) see the calamity approaching, just as she failed to do years earlier.
That was when Peter Quint - valet and child abuser (undoubtedly psychologically, but only probably physically) held sway over the house like a malevolent baron over a medieval manor. Elgan Llyr Thomas's tenor appears more often than he does, soaring around the auditorium, but his red hair and beard are an indicator of his passionate nature - too passionate.
Is he a seductive devil (as Miles appears to label him) or is he as much a victim of the isolation as anyone else in this remote fiefdom? Knowing what we do now of the methods employed by paedophiles, it's hard not to come down on the side of the former.
Thomas's female counterpart is Elin Pritchard, who strikes a rare bum note in the production - not through her singing, which is of the same high quality as the rest of the cast, but in her costume and demeanour. Perhaps the mad witch woman, smeared with earth, pointing and accusing, is too familiar a trope, but with understatement very much the tone adopted elsewhere, the part feels a little overcooked.
That takes nothing away from this accomplished, sophisticated and disturbing take on one of the most performed operas in the canon. That it feels so contemporary and packs as big a punch today as it did 64 years ago is a testament to its fusing of music and drama to get under the skin and take us to places we would rather not go.
But visit them we must, as children who suffer at the hands of adults will return to haunt them, metaphorically if not literally. As America may learn, we reap what we sow.