One of the first operatic casualties of lockdown last March was OperaGlass Works’ staging of The Turn of the Screw at Wilton’s. But when you cannot admit audiences into the auditorium, inventive companies find ways of bringing their work into our homes instead. With a brief autumnal window in which cast members were able to reconvene in London’s oldest music hall, the production by Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson was rethought for film with Dominic Best. It’s a remarkably atmospheric creation delivering plenty of shivers down the spine – not for solitary late night viewing.

Ensemble musicians at Wilton's
© Laurie Sparham

In the Prologue, Robert Murray is our proxy, entering Wilton’s, passing through doors flaked with peeling paint and wandering the murky corridors. In Tom Piper’s designs, the theatre slumbers, like the overgrown castle in Sleeping Beauty. Dust sheets drape from the balconies in the auditorium, reed beds have swamped the stalls while, up on the stage, a single naked lightbulb stands sentinel – a ghost light, historically a safety device but also symbolic of keeping the flame of theatre burning during long periods of enforced closure. Murray, gentlemanly and in period costume, approaches a piano and, with the flick of a wrist, conjures it into life and our story is under way. 

Much use is made of the fourth wall, characters singing directly to camera, inveigling us in their confessional narratives, especially useful when, due to social distancing measures, the singers are unable to make physical contact with each other, something that Miles and Flora’s mute “clapping” game brings into sharp focus. When Leo Jemison sings Miles’ haunting “Malo” straight to camera, eyes unblinking, we are ensnared. 

Rhian Lois (Governess), Alys Mererid Roberts (Flora) and Gweneth Ann Rand (Mrs Grose)
© Laurie Sparham

John Wilson’s hand-picked ensemble (recorded at Cadogan Hall) are seen dotted between the reed beds, mostly during the interludes that punctuate Britten’s theme and variations structure. The spectral flute and bass clarinet duet of Variation XI is especially eerie, illuminated by that single, naked bulb. Lewis Hannaby’s superb lighting shrouds events in nocturnal gloom, then suffuses the stage in sunlight. 

The medium of film allows the directorial team licence to exploit the theatre in its entirety, so we brush past barley-sugar twisted pillars and rusty pipes, clamber the rickety staircases, sneak into a cubbyhole where we discover a cellist. A ghostly violinist plays behind a frosted pane… the same window from which Peter Quint will appear. A bassoonist chirrups from the balcony and sheets of music flutter down. The magic of film also permits Quint, spying on Miles “playing” the piano on a music stand, to evaporate into thin air. Between scenes, the appearance of the backstage crew breaks the tension, an unnecessary intrusion, perhaps, although there are hints later on that the ghostly events have also caught them unawares. I’m not completely convinced. 

Robert Murray (Peter Quint)
© Laurie Sparham

The casting is excellent. Rhian Lois is a fresh-faced, innocent young Governess, her supple soprano wonderfully focused and never forced, her acting nuanced – as it needs to be for the small screen. Murray’s red-haired, pasty-faced Peter Quint is a properly horrifying portrayal, his melismas first heard beautifully floating around the corridors. His Quint is a nasty piece of work, relishing the text, lines like “the brittle blandishment of counterfeit” almost spat out. 

Alys Mererid Roberts (Flora) and Francesca Chiejina (Miss Jessel)
© Laurie Sparham

Gweneth Ann Rand’s Mrs Grose is understated, but warm, less at ease in front of the camera than Lois or Murray. Francesca Chiejina’s Miss Jessel is opulently sung. Her diction is not always clear (the film is subtitled), but her ghostly appearances are gripping. An adult soprano, Alys Mererid Roberts, sings Flora, a particularly malevolent sister who definitely knows more than she’s letting on. Jemison repeats his Garsington success as Miles, angelically sung, although when he utters “I am bad, aren’t I?”, I’d like to believe him a little more. When the Governess confronts him, battling against Quint’s malignant presence, the denouement is a surprise (but it works). 

With pristine instrumental playing under Wilson’s exacting direction, this film is a wonderful realisation of Britten’s chilling chamber opera. 

This performance was reviewed from the Marquee TV stream, available from Saturday 30th January.