Like all paranormal tales, The Turn of the Screw invites many different interpretations. And many questions. Britten's opera adds a further layer of intrigue. Knowing how much or how little to reveal is at the heart of any successful staging, and David McVicar, while living more dangerously than some, does not allow interpretative theories to overwhelm the elusive nature of the piece. Only one thing is clear: that the essence of the story and the opera is the corruption of innocence. Everything else is in the eye and mind of the beholder.
So, who is the mysterious man who opens proceedings and goes by the name of The Prologue? The role is doubled with that of the ghostly and predatory Peter Quint, implying a kinship of sorts. But is he not also the "handsome employer" who so infatuates the Governess that she undertakes his engagement without meeting him? McVicar suggests that he is, and in a single gesture sows a dramatic seed from which his whole interpretation will grow.
Just as the Governess is about to begin her journey (metaphorically speaking), she reaches out to touch the man that she has so vividly conjured up in her imagination. But he is, of course, out of reach, a figment of her deepest desires. Are we to believe that the entire opera is seen through the eyes of a sexual hysteric? A repressed Victorian woman seeking sexual liberation? Is the ghostly Peter Quint the embodiment of her employer and her desires? Possibly.
But the fact that I write "possibly" and not "undoubtedly" is a tribute to the psychological balancing act that McVicar maintains with this production. It is played out on an open stage shrouded in darkness. Tanya McCallin's somewhat rudimentary (and noisy) design has translucent sepia panels sliding back and forth with the shift of each scene – almost as if the house has no form and its walls are continually dissolving into the night. A ghostly group of servants rearrange the furniture as they might rearrange our thoughts. Adam Silverman's lighting works wonders in maintaining oppressive shadows, and only fleetingly allows the light from without to penetrate the darkness within.
But by far the most telling aspect of McVicar's staging – and his casting – is the erotic tension that pervades throughout. Timothy Robinson and Cheryl Barker as the ghosts Quint and Jessel, the former governess, make much of Britten's seductive vocal melismata, but McVicar mirrors them with a strenuous physicality, leaving one in no doubt as to the nature of their sexual games. And what are we to make of the Governess's nightmare at the start of Act II, when Quint drags Jessel up from a shallow grave to have his abusive way with her? Has their reality become her fantasy?
One thing is certain: the children, Miles and Flora (George Longworth and Nazan Fikret, both marvellous) have grown up too soon. When Miles confronts the Governess with the words, "You see, I am bad", at the end of Act I, he kisses her long and hard on the lips. The ceremony of innocence is indeed drowned. The boy has become a man in Quint's image.
And yet the Governess – as portrayed in Rebecca Evans' ethereally sung performance – is drawn to Quint through the boy. She regards Jessel as competition, and resents her for it. And therein lies the conflict and turmoil, beautifully conveyed by Evans, that eventually alienates the housekeeper Mrs Grose. She is passionately realised in the power casting of Ann Murray, who personifies Victorian moral outrage, but does so with real heart.
Garry Walker does not spare the instrumental extremes of Britten's sensational score. There is at once startling clarity and deep equivocation. So go – and see what you make of the final image....
In repertory to 8 December (0871 911 0200)