Review: TURNING THE SCREW, King's Head Theatre

The second production in the newly reopened theatre fails to deliver.

By: Feb. 17, 2024
Review: TURNING THE SCREW, King's Head Theatre
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Review: TURNING THE SCREW, King's Head Theatre English composer Benjamin Britten is writing The Turn of the Screw. Based on a novella by Henry James, it follows the worries of a young governess sent to the countryside to take care of a pair of children. As Britten is building his melodies, the government is working hard to shut down the influence of what they call “high profile homosexuals’’ (think John Gielgud and friends). With the threat of governmental intervention into the private lives of many men, Britten’s behaviour risks drawing too much attention. That’s when he meets David Hemmings, a 12-year-old choirboy whom he takes under his wing and invites into the home he shares with his partner Peter Pears.

Kevin Kelly explores the power imbalance and abuse of notoriety in the arts against the backdrop of political homophobia. Directed by Tim McArthur, Turning the Screw is the second production in the newly (re)opened venue that doesn’t exactly soar in quality. Its awkward stance on paedophilia combines with an uninspired take and a text riddled with too many explanatory bloviations to offer a project that’s decisively too period in ideas. It comes off as an apologia for pre-pubescent attraction, which makes it seem to be okay as long as one is an artistic genius.

Though the piece kicks off with David (Liam Watson) defensively stating that nothing ever happened between them and the musician himself says it directly later on, the 40-year-old goes on to suggest swimming in the nude once they move to Suffolk to work on the opera undisturbed. The core beliefs of the play aren’t the only dubious elements. The performances tip into an occasional stiffness, while attempts at humour are forcefully sprinkled to soothe the pace.

The normalisation of grooming is eased by the fact that Watson could easily be in his late twenties, but his childish acting slips into a cheapness of sorts. His overexcited and obnoxious attitude grates against the pacific confidence and well-bred poise of Gary Tushaw’s Britten. The latter gives a respectable performance, all things considered, leaning into the character’s guilt complex. He never admits to the inappropriateness of his unintentional fascination towards boys and a heartbreaking dose of internalised hatred underlines his delivery. 

A handful of other actors gravitate around this main duo without leaving much of a mark. With some irritating overacting throughout, an unfortunately under-used performer (Simon Willmont), and an exceptionally bad wig, even 85 minutes seem a long time. Designer Laura Harling sets the scene on a stage that’s too makeshift for McArthur’s style of direction. Large wooden frames hang off the ceiling, undecided whether to be windows or not, while music stands dot the space. A smaller platform made of what looks like an overly expensive pallet hosts a translucent screen behind which the past haunts Britten twice in the form of a former younger affection.

Turning the Screw turns a blind eye to Britten’s sexual interest for adolescents, making it difficult to defend such an ambiguous and problematic production. Some lovely philosophising on music and war coexists next to terribly inexcusable concepts that might go as far as endangering the very nature of LGBTQ+ rights if received by the wrong kind of audience. A slice of opera and gay history becomes something quite unsettling.

Turning the Screw runs at the King's Head Theatre until 10 March.