Can a ghost story be relevant to a 21st century audience? In this correspondent’s view, yes, particularly if it is presented in a way that does not preclude any one interpretation of the story’s narrative and emotion. The Victorian Opera’s production of The Turn of the Screw, which previewed last night at Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre, presented Henry James’ story in its time and character, eschewing any reference to today’s world. Sparse sets and a very measured delivery of Britten’s music by Orchestra Victoria, along with beautifully controlled singing by a, mostly, well cast ensemble resulted in a whole which avoided all risk of melodrama, ghost story notwithstanding.
The orchestra, under Britten specialist Paul Kildea, played with care and restraint allowing the textures rather than the dynamics to move the listener. Of particular note was the very fine viola playing of Paul McMillan, getting just the right feeling for Britten’s well regarded viola writing.
The simple sets and careful use of lighting to switch between interior and exterior spaces allowed the story to flow virtually uninterrupted. A large dolls’ house played, initially, the dual role of children’s prop and metaphor for Bly House where the events take place, reappearing as a bleak house at night in the second half, windows blazing from a black background: a grim reminder that houses are homes to souls and spirits, dead and alive.
From the prologue, delivered eloquently by James Egglestone, it was clear this was to be an intense journey. Danielle Calder as the Governess paced her role carefully, beginning with self doubt, moving through joy in the children, then with increasing intensity becoming more and more concerned, until finally, portraying a distraught and once again doubting self. She was a good representation of the tall pedagogue, nicely juxtaposed against Mrs Grose, sung by Maxine Montgomery, all big hips and bosom, as a housekeeper should be. Mrs Grose knew her place, her demarcations. But had she been compliant in some dreadful business? For her part, the Governess seemed unaware, as the plot unfolded, that her concentration on Miles was beginning to alienate his sister, Flora. The Latin lesson invoked a hard reality. A pedagogue is happy with facts. They must be learned. History, more to Flora’s taste, is about social evolution, power and fear. These are not areas in which this governess feels competent. The famous nursery rhyme elements came across well with good ensemble singing, although the Malo song was not so convincing.
The presentation of the ghosts Peter Quint (Egglestone) and Miss Jessel (Melanie Adams) first in tableaux, then allowing them to walk, placed them clearly in the surreal. But where, exactly? The production allowed the audience to decide for itself whether ghosts were truly abroad, or just in the mind of the poor governess. Egglestone, the antagonist in a work with no protagonist, was careful to avoid the pitfalls of overplaying the malevolent, thus avoiding a descent into melodrama.
If there was a weakness in the production it was with the role of Miles. While Flora, the much less complex and difficult role of the two children, was quite deftly managed by Georgina Darvidis with appropriate girlish glee, sullenness and tantrum, Takshin Fernando had more difficulty with Miles. He had some intonation problems early on, but this may have just been first night nerves. Britten cannot be easy for a young treble to sing. Rather than bring out some of Miles’ possible characteristics (was he perpetrator, victim, unwilling contributor, fearful or spiteful – he had been expelled from school after all), the role was presented as a rather uni-dimensional child. Perhaps this was Director Kate Cherry’s intention. In Fernando’s defence it must be said, however, that both the confession scene where the candle suddenly goes out, and the scene where he is tempted by Quint to steal the Governess’ letter, were among the dramatic highpoints of the performance. On the other hand, Miles’ final “Peter Quint, you devil” lacked emotional impact. Still, it would be unfair to blame a less than satisfactory ending on the performers, or perhaps even the director. Here is a boy, perfectly physically healthy up until this point, who suddenly dies for supernatural reasons. Fault must surely be sheeted home to Henry James.
The Governess had the last word, Ms Calder singing with emotion filled doubt, enabling the audience to leave pondering many uncertainties and interpretations. Questions relevant to the twenty-first century indeed, even though we all know ghosts do not exist.
Or do we?