Posts Tagged ‘The Turn of the Screw’

The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne, August 2011

12 August, 2011

The clarity of this production, and this performance, was exceptional. From the first words of the Prologue to the last words of the drama when the Governess asks the limp body of Miles, “What have we done between us?”, the whole story was laid bare.

Governess and children, all photos by Alastair Muir

The scene with the governess travelling by train to the big house where she will look after the two children was beautifully done, with projections of moving countryside through train windows. You feel for the governess, for her uncertainty, “If things go wrong, what shall I do? Who can I ask, with none of my own kind to talk to?”

Flora and Miss Jessel, Miles and Quint

The central feature of this Jonathan Kent production is a large frame of windows, including a French window, that can revolve, be lifted, and rotated out of their frame. The windows help separate the world of normality from otherworldly forces, and in the scene at the lake they lie horizontally over the body of Miss Jessel, as if she were under water before rising up to spook the governess. The previous death of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint is represented partly by branches of a dead tree where Quint sits when he urges Miles to steal the letter, and the many scenes in this opera are formed by bringing stage props together by rotating various annular regions of the stage, sometimes in opposite directions. These are clever designs by Paul Brown, helped by Mark Henderson’s lighting, and I particularly liked the final scene of Act I where Miles is in the bath and Flora is washing her hair. She puts her head in the basin and remains utterly still while Quint appears to Miles. It’s as if time stands still. It’s as if these ghostly appearances exist in a wrinkle of time, inaccessible to Mrs. Grose the housekeeper, but they are disturbances that reveal themselves to receptive minds.

Governess and Miles

This is a chamber opera, with thirteen instrumentalists from the London Philharmonic playing beautifully under the direction of young Czech conductor, Jakub Hruša, the music director of Glyndebourne on Tour. The cast worked together as a team, all with excellent diction, and it’s impossible to pick out single brilliant performances. Toby Spence gave great clarity to the prologue and was a charismatic Quint; and Giselle Allen was a creepy looking Miss Jessel, with her long, untidy, black hair, and spine-tingling voice. Miah Persson was a wonderful governess, pretty and sure of voice, albeit plagued by anxiety, and Susan Bickley was strong and equally sure as Mrs. Grose. This wonderful team of adults was complemented by Joanna Songi as Flora and Thomas Parfitt as Miles. As a woman in her very early twenties, Ms Songi came over very well as a ten year old girl, and Thomas Parfitt played a boy of his own age (12) with superb clarity and voice control. This was as close to perfect a performance of Britten’s opera as one is ever likely to get, and is not to be missed.

 Performances continue until August 28 — for details click here.

Ghosts in the Mind

20 January, 2010

This is written in connection with two ghost stories I have seen on stage recently: The Turn of the Screw and The Woman in Black.

In his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes argues that three thousand years ago human beings had bicameral minds, meaning that one half of the brain communicated to the other half, which transmuted what it received into visual and auditory images. He used this to explain auditory and visual hallucinations, and to argue that consciousness, in its introspective sense, only emerged from the breakdown of bicameralism in the modern brain. He argues that in ancient times the voices heard by the participants in Homer’s Iliad, or indeed by Biblical heroes such as Abraham and Moses, were a consequence of bicameralism. Vestiges of this in our modern brains may give a partial explanation for seeing ghosts and hearing strange noises. What sets this off is mysterious, but I know from my own experience as a mathematician that my best ideas have always arisen intuitively rather than rationally. This is how creativity works, and a trained mind is able to put a sudden insight into a rational framework, using for instance mathematical symbols, musical notation or simply words.

In the context of our modern minds, creating a rational output from an intuitive feeling uses a combination of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which is vital for mathematical and musical creativity. But when our brains function in a bicameral way, an intuitive idea may give rise to something that appears to come from outside us. A suitable environment, such as a mysterious house with a history of being haunted, or feelings of which we might not be conscious, could combine with small perceptions that do not fit an expected pattern to produce a sudden insight that is transmitted from one half of the brain to the other. This may then be interpreted as a visual or auditory image — a ghost, a disembodied voice, or simply an unexpected sound. If the ghost seems to cause a disaster to happen, as in the story of The Woman in Black, it might well be that a presentiment of the disaster causes the hallucination.