Henry James’ The Turn of the Screwis a story encased in coffin of claustrophobia. Part of what makes the narrative so unsettling is the idea of being shut up in the middle of nowhere in an old house from which there is no escape. Timothy Shreader’s production of Benjamin Britten’s operatic version – performed by members of the English National Opera – blasts the carapace wide open. Instead of the entrapment of a remote dwelling, the haunting (and haunted) setting is the outdoorsy rural landscape itself.
Soutra Gilmour has turned the stifling mansion house into the crumbling frame of a once-ornate conservatory. All the glass windows but one have been blown out (and the remaining one doesn’t last long), and the frame looks like it’s succumbed to a Mrs Rochester blaze. The sight of the Governess (Anita Watson) and Mrs Grosse (Janis Kelly) carrying pot plants around the space makes its resemblance to a posh greenhouse a bit too clear, but the structure works best understood symbolically, as representing the ruinous state this home is in and the way it teeters on the edge of further disintegration.
The real beauty of the set, however, is the way it seeds itself into the natural surroundings of the Open Air Theatre. The woody dell semi-circling the stage area dissolves into an area of unkempt long grass, wooden boardwalks and shallow pools of water. Gilmour’s capturing of the colours of the east-England is exquisite. The muted tones of the dried out grass and the whited wood hint that the coast is not far from wherever this house is, and it’s not a donkeys-and-ice-cream coast, but a wild, wind-battered stretch of land where the threat of falling off it and into the sea feels the same as the threat of falling off it and off the entire planet.
In the case of the production’s design, this focus on exteriority rather than interiority has beautiful results. But in the case of Britten’s opera, it has the opposite effect. Myfanwy Piper’s libretto writes Peter Quint and Miss Jessel into the story as characters with a substantial amount of lines and appearances on stage. In the case of this production, Quint (Elgan Llyr Thomas) is a pale-faced but quite spritely man who looks quite well suited to the woodland setting, whilst Jessel (Elin Pritchard) is a magnificent Lady of the Lake, sort of like a gothic mermaid version of Jane Morris.
But as pleasing as it is to see Pritchard on stage dangling her Rapunzel plait like a noose over the dozing Governess, the flesh-and-blood existence of the characters is what makes Britten’s opera integrally less unsettling that the original book. In the opera, the two spirits are made to exist in a way that suggests they definitely do exist. Whilst the brilliance of James’ original resides in it’s ambiguity. In essence, Britten gets rid of the most claustrophobic element of all: the suggestion all of this could be the result of being trapped inside an unstable mind.
There are strong performances from the cast, most notably from Daniel Sidhom, who is impressively self-assured singing the role of Miles. And although it loses the disconcerting slipperiness of the story in book form, the preference for outside-over-inside scores a final, beautiful win. With the start time deliberately moved back to 8pm, the sun starts to visibly go down just after the interval, first bleaching the sky so that the trees melt into inkblots and then darkening with such perfect timing at the finale it makes you think that if there is a god, then she’s working as a lighting designer.
The Turn of the Screw is on until 30 June 2018 at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Click here for more details.