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For their final show of the year, Bristol University Operatic Society adapt Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Away from the summer heat, Arts Editor Ed Grimble heads to the nave of St. Paul’s Church, Clifton, for a chilling evening.

‘Together we have destroyed him’, sings the Governess at the tragic denouement of Britten’s chamber orchestra, adapted from Henry James’s 1898 novella of the same name, and which premiered in Venice in 1954. This is the essence of The Turn of the Screw—it is a depiction of destructive intersections: trauma and innocence; spirituality and materialism; the conviction of personal belief and empiricism.

St. Paul’s Church plays host to this tale of madness, malevolence and malice

A young Governess (Jen Statham) takes a position at Bly House, in which live an old housekeeper—Mrs Grose (Charlotte Bateman)—and her two exuberant charges, Miles (Emma Huggett) and Flora (Ailsa Campbell). What follows is a malevolent exploration of the power of place, as a series of hauntings betray the cruel and dark history of Bly House. Confusion and madness pervade this psychogeographic crucible.

Any performance that is exhilarating enough to make one forget just how woefully uncomfortable church pews are must be doing something right

Without exception, the whole cast give unwaveringly strong vocal performances. It is a testament to the high standards to which BOpS hold themselves, that this is an expectation whenever a new production is staged. Their glowing credentials are enumerated in the programme pieces, and my word do the six performers live up to their billing.

The cast in rehearsal in St. Paul’s Church

Audaciously ascending the church’s pulpit to deliver the prologue, Will Wright (also playing the spectre of groundsman Peter Quint) embodies BOpS’s desire to really attack what is a challenging space in which to perform. Stained glass in May renders impossible anything even approaching darkness, columns play havoc with sight lines, and the chancel’s floor-to-ceiling gilded iconography threatens to overshadow the performance.

If director Charlie Walker and her cast were ever intimidated by the prospect of having to command such a space, they certainly do not show it in the final performance. Campbell and Huggett duck and weave among the columns with puckish energy, in stark contrast to the slow, relentless and insidious apparitions of Quint and Miss Jessel (Will Wright and Sophie Whitfield).

The cast assert themselves even alongside their beautiful surroundings

Despite these strengths, my reservations about the show are twofold. Firstly, there is an inevitable loss of narrative clarity in a presentation of Britten’s adaptation of James’s prose. To those members of the audience with no grounding in the basic plot, there emerges a danger that what should be a compelling narrative gives way to a purely musical experience. To put it tersely: read carefully the synopsis given in the programme…

BOpS end their year with an ambitious production: The Turn of the Screw is dramatically complex and musically demanding

This production also falls slightly short of really exploiting the tumultuous psychological drama of the Governess. Although Jen Statham anchors the show brilliantly with her strong vocals, the frantic deterioration of her character’s conviction in what is real and what is imaginary is lacking here. It is what allows James’s text to hit so hard, yet BOpS frustratingly fail to land this crucial blow.

BOpS end their year with an ambitious production: The Turn of the Screw is dramatically complex and musically demanding, and the orchestra and cast are always, in a sense, competing against the majesty of their ecclesiastical surroundings. In spite of the aforementioned criticisms, the final product is a triumph, however. Any performance that is exhilarating enough to make one forget just how woefully uncomfortable church pews are must be doing something right—and BOpS deserve a full congregation with this one.

★★★★

BOpS’s The Turn of the Screw runs at St. Paul’s Church in Clifton until Saturday 27th May. Tickets are available here.


What were your thoughts on BOpS’s final show of the year? Let us know in the comments below or on social media

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