The Turn of The Screw – Benjamin Britten

If I were to sum up Benjamin Britten’s operatic rendition of The Turn of The Screw in one word it would have to be phenomenal.  The adaptation from an ominous novella to a grand opera was superbly mediated by the Northern Ireland Opera.

A single wooden chair sat in the middle of the stage with dim lighting surrounding it.  Alongside the gloomy orchestra accompaniment this entire beginning was extremely unsettling and instantly gave the audience a strong sense of foreboding.


We were very quickly introduced to the governess via the narrator Sam Furness (also the part of Peter Quint).  The use of props within the prologue, the single chair and a book that the prologue is being read from) is very comparable to the original novella.  We are instantly shown that we are witnessing a story that is being dictated to us.  We begin to question is the governess a real person or is she a mere character in a fabricated ghost story?  The idea of an unreliable narrator and the governess’ intentions is paramount to this play and is an idea that is firmly within the minds of the audience.

The initial interactions between the Governess (Katie Bird) and the children, Miles (Garbhan McEnoy) and Flora (Lucia Vernon-Long) are initially of a blissful stature.  The children’s innocence is very much shown through the use of childhood songs being sang such as ‘Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son.  This is further reiterated via the implied mischievousness of Miles; Mrs Grose (Yvonne Howard) orders Miles to behave before the new Governess arrives.  However, the audience is quickly shown oddments regarding a loss of innocence of the two children.  One that firmly stuck in my head was the scene in which Flora and Miles are playing; Flora puts a toy under her skirt to show a pregnant belly.  Could this have been a glimpse at the loss of virtue or was it simply children playing and nothing to be read in to?  The vulnerability of the children is also shown via the orchestra.  When the adults are singing their voices are very dominant above the instruments.  However, the children were somewhat drowned by the loudness of the orchestra.  I took this to be another reiteration of the children’s innocent nature.  As the play progresses, however, we see the voices of the children gaining much more prominence over the orchestra to show a build in character.

Giselle Allen in the 2012 production of The Turn of the Screw

The way in which the characters of Miss Jessel (Giselle Allen) and Peter Quint (Sam Furness) were introduced were extremely effective in creating a creepy and ill-omened atmosphere for the audience.  The clever way in which they are shown through a prop window is initially very fearful.  The Governess’ reaction to seeing this is one of panic and questioning.  However, as she discovers more and more about Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, their presence becomes much more prominent.  They go from simply being a reflection in a window to being at the children’s bedside; a very unsettling scene indeed.  The Governess’ sense of protection and almost hysteria towards the children grows as Jessel and Quint’s presence does.


Moving on from the story and the way in which it was spectacularly mediated, I wish to talk about the stage set up and lighting.  The backdrops on stage were excellently used.  Whilst there was no huge amount of variety, which is by no means a bad thing, the stage very effectively demonstrated new scenes and new locations.  The sparse use of props not only created a creepy setting, but it allowed the audience to focus on what mattered most; that was the story and the beautiful operatic voices of the cast.

I do not wish to spoil the storyline as I feel The Turn of The Screw is one of those many pieces of fiction that should be enjoyed, at least once, by everyone.  I was somewhat sceptical approaching this performance as I consider this novella to be one of my all-time favourites.  However, I feel that everyone involved in this performance were amazing.  They not only beautifully sang throughout the entire performance, but they were able to accurately portray every part of the story.  From blissfulness, fear, isolation to an entire devastation and loss of innocence the performance was phenomenal and should be given the fantastic recognition that it deserves.  The casting was perfect and not one person stole the show; everyone was equally extraordinary.