FEATURE TURN OF THE SCREW
‘All art forms have prejudices to overcome, butlsense strongly the desire to open up opera here to as wide an audience as possible.’
For the ﬁrst time, Tramway is to host an innovative new production
by Scottish Opera. Fiona Shepherd reports on how the enlightened
patronage of regular opera-goers has made it possible for Benjamin
Britten’s The Turn Of The Screw to head south of the river and seek out a new audience.
f opera wants to make new friends. it should get out and about more. Certainly, it’s a good thing that our national opera company boasts a home of its own, the Theatre Royal, when other companies have to run an itinerant operation. But for those who remain sceptical about opera’s popular renaissance of recent years, the seating strata in a conventional theatre only upholds the perennial criticism that a trip to the opera has as much to do with accentuating social hierarchy as it does with personal enjoyment — commoners up in the gods and the monied set rattling their jewellery in the dress circle.
In the face of persistent, though latent, prejudice, Scottish Opera have decided to take the mountain to Mohammed. They’ve had Opera-Go-Round happily going round for years L- a handful of performers presenting scaled-
down versions of well-loved operas to largely rural communities, where the ‘orchestra’ comprises one piano and maybe a triangle if you’re lucky — but their production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn Of The Screw at the Tramway breaks new ground.
So infectious was their excitement for the project that they succeeded in raising £45,000 from members of their regular audience. The ‘l’m Backing Britten’ campaign asked the humble punter on the seat, rather than the corporate sponsor, to dig deep and find it in their pocket to support the venture and enjoy more of a hands-on patronage.
‘All art forms have prejudices to overcome,’ says Turn Of The Screw director David Leveaux, ‘but I sense strongly the desire to open up opera here to as wide an audience as possible. I hope there’ll also be a young
audience for this because Britten is a brilliant writer for young people.’
The composer of Young Person '3 Guide To The Orchestra (and Peter Grimes, to be performed at the Theatre Royal in April and May) also had the foresight to score his operatic adaptation of the Henry James ghost story for
just thirteen instruments, so that’s one logistical
nightmare erased in the transition from proscenium theatre to malleable performance space.
Neither Leveaux nor designer Vicki Mortimer have worked on opera before, concentrating their efforts on prestigious theatrical productions for the RSC and the Almeida Theatre, as well as further afield in Japan and the USA. Both confess that it was the combination of the piece with the venue that attracted them.
‘The most difficult thing in moving from theatre to opera is that you are much more in danger of duplicating what the music’s doing by what you make it look like,’ says Mortimer, ‘and the Tramway gives you a huge amount in its own right. As soon as you try and put anything theatrical in there it just spits it back at you, so you hold back a bit and just make something that holds the piece inside it.’
The Tramway has just the right ambience to convey the bleakness and isolation of the story — the physical chill of a large country house and grounds with few occupants to fill it and the psychological chill felt by the new, governess as she ﬁrst witnesses the apparition's of her predecessor and former servant Peter Quint and then fears the extent of Quint’s hold over her two young charges.
‘The Tramway’s such a fantastic choice for the piece because it’s already so haunted.’ says Mortimer. ‘Something which Turn Of The Screw touches on is the end of an idyllic British image; something is turning it sour. So we tried to use what the Tramway has, which is a residue of a wonderful, industrious past and we tried to suggest a similar kind of abandoned feeling in the set.’
Leveaux is keen to contrast this austerity with an exploration of what he sees as the inherent sensuality of the story. ‘ln the Henry James novel there’s quite a lot of ambiguity about the degree to which these children have been corrupted or the degree to which the governess herself is placing upon the children a projection of her own desire. What Britten has done is open up territory that Henry James was rather restrained about in the Victorian manner. He was writing about volcanic passions lying underneath the ordered civilised world and Britten has brought them up to the surface.
‘The piece expands its focus to being among other things a very hot journey for this young woman, the governess, who already has feelings for the children’s guardian in London which have no means of fulfilment. Every single character in the piece is touched or motivated by a terriﬁc desire for love but no channel to express it, so it’s difficult to avoid the assumption that this is a sensual opera which explores both what is natural and glorious about sex but also what is demonic about sexual power.’
It’s a very different view of the tale than that proffered in its cinematic expression The
12 The List 1 l—24 February 1994