Supernatural in Suffolk: Turn of the Screw
Helen Wallace on Aurora’s haunting weekend on the Snape marshes
Standing in Snape you can just make out the tower of St Botolph’s church. It promises a village on the banks of the River Alde, which Iken once was. But when you snake your way beside treacherous mud to the churchyard, you find only a relic of a hamlet and a dead end, stillness, neglect and the sour, dank smell of the marshes. As dusk gathers, rooks caw, isolation intensifies. Surely, just such a remote location is what Henry James imagined for Bly, the country house in Turn of the Screw, where orphaned children, paranoid adults and the spirit of evil collide against a cold, watery backdrop?
This was the starting point for ‘The path to Bly’ that prefaced Aurora’s production of Turn of the Screw, curated by directors Sophie Hunt and Andrew Staples (also singing Quint). The wide canvas of twilit landscape, with its intriguing voices, embedded music and eerie shrines, could not have presented a sharper contrast to the staging: a giant cat’s cradle caught orchestra and singers in a cage. With the governess (an incandescent Sophie Bevan) standing in the centre of this labyrinth, the idea that the story occurs in her mind was to the fore. William Reynolds’s projections liquefied, electrified and obliterated the ribboned structure, allowing it to ‘re-grow’, to become a starry night, strobe-lit nightmare, or simply her pulsating brain in which characters were illuminated and snuffed out, inexorably separate.
That separation detracted from key moments: this governess, frozen on her podium, can never comfort Miles or face off Miss Jessel, and when the ghosts arrive there’s no sense of confrontation. Though marvellously sung, by a seductive Staples and darkly plush Jane Irwin, there was something jarring about ghosts holding scores; they were too similar to Ann Murray’s convincing Mrs Grose. Only the children, hands-free, and could escape the cage to indulge in some distinctly troubling ritual play. Vocally Joshua Kenney (Miles) and Louise Moseley (Flora) were powerfully true, even if, like their elders, their words were mostly lost into the hall’s gloom, with no surtitles for back-up.
Nicholas Collon conducted soloists from the Aurora orchestra in a performance of spine-tingling eloquence. They revealed anew the intricate brilliance of the score, with its insinuating 12-note passacaglia returning with fresh menace and ravishing colours as the screw turns. Virtuosic strings produced dizzyingly fast figures and the pizzicato patter that drives Quint’s questioning had a visceral urgency I’ve not heard before. Pianist John Reid gave vivid voice to his key role. There were moments of intense focus: Kenney’s ‘Malo’, in which he was reduced by lighting to a skeletal sapling, cut to the quick; the wild energy in Quint’s calling to Miles. Bevan’s final requiem, distorted by anguish, delivered a wrenching catharsis.
Britten once wrote of the necessity of ‘a firm secure musical structure which can safely hold together and make sense of one’s wildest fantasies'. Perhaps two secure structures was a constriction too far?
Strictures were happily abandoned in Spirit House, a family concert the previous night, in which illusionist Neil Henry and four vivacious Aurora soloists provided an entrancing intro to Britten’s music. Imaginative as it was, music from Turn of the Screw was strangely absent, surely Britten’s spookiest work, and keystone of this ‘Supernatural in Suffolk’ weekend.
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