Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is a story that never feels solved. It demands the questions of who is evil and who is good, yet leaves the answer to ambiguity, a puzzle for the audience. So, as the choice for the first collaboration between the ENO and Regent’s Open Air Theatre, the spooky nineteenth century tale of a governess left to care for two young, perfectly well-behaved, yet seemingly troubled children is one that feels fitting for the outdoor theatre in Regent’s Park. As the sun sets, and the tale takes darker turns, the ghostly opera comes to life.
The Governess – played on this night by Rhian Lois – is haunted by the ghosts of Peter Quint and the former governess Miss Jessel, and starts to believe that they are exerting a strange power over her two charges. Working out what has actually happens in the work soon becomes a kind of beautiful agony, reflected by Britten’s music which through its themes links the Governess and the ghosts.
The composition is not new. Music by Benjamin Britten, and a libretto by his friend Myfanwy Piper (written in the 1960s), mean that this work is not necessarily fresh. Yet, it is a fairly modern choice for the Open Air Theatre and the ENO, and you begin to feel like it was written to be performed outside. The plot is sparse and so the gothic tale suits both opera and the gradually darkening setting, as the soft whoosh of the wind through the trees threads into Britten’s score as played by the ENO orchestra.
Rhian Lois puts in a beautiful performance as the troubled Governess, her voice light but powerful enough to command the stage. While the children Ellie Bradbury and Shalto McMillian, an enthusiastic pair who make the most of the roles, play Flora and Miles. There are a few hesitant moments, but others that are full of promise balance these.
That said the set is the star. The dilapidated conservatory in amongst the reeds and marshes feel like they have been part of the landscape for years, and sets just the right eerie tone. You are transported wholly into the house and its machinations, and Designer Soutra Gilmour must be praised for such an achievement.
The Turn of the Screw is a surprisingly fitting summer show, and the Open Air Theatre adds new life to this gothic tale. A spook in the park that’s beautiful listening.
The Turn of the Screw is playing Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 30 June
Photo: Johan Persson