Turning The Screw

The most frustrating thing about watching Turning the Screw are the moments when it is almost good. When it manages to settle into itself and find a more natural rhythm, or when the darkness at the centre of both Britten and the play is allowed to emerge. And then, without fail, the moment is ruined, and hope is lost for another twenty minutes of action. Again and again, the play falls into tired black box theatre tropes that feel tonally adrift from the story; or simply hard cuts away from an interesting moment, failing to let them breathe and linger.

The play is grappling – or attempting to grapple – with enormously difficult themes: paedophilia, grooming, emotional abuse, and perceptions of queerness and queer identity. And yet the overwhelming sense is that the production as a whole has bitten off rather more than it can chew, and that it is afraid of the weight of its own themes. The thread of desperation that appears early on in the play in conversations between Benjamin Britten (Gary Tushaw) and his partner Peter Pears (Simon Willmont) is quickly muted and forgotten, rather than becoming a propelling intensity that runs the entire way through.

The play suggests that, at the very least, Britten groomed one child and attempted to sexually assault another, but despite the tenor of its content, it constantly hedges its bets and darts back from any real darkness. We are all familiar with the idea of a charming, talented genius of a monster, but that very charm is exactly what’s missing from Tushaw’s performance. The play fails to make us love Britten, and so it is easy for us to step back from him, to condemn him, and to never have to really sink into the complexities of his psyche and wrestle with what they mean. We are constantly told by those who love Britten that his attention feels like sunshine, but that is rarely glimpsed – really only in one sequence in the entire play does that feel remotely believable.

Our lack of feeling for Britten himself – and by extension, those around him, who are lured in by this mercurial figure and make countless excuses for him – deflates the play as a whole. The relationship between Peter and Britten is insufficiently established, and it’s hard to believe in the foundation of deep, abiding love that the play is so insistent exists between them. There is an attempt at exploring the ways Peter is complicit in Britten’s actions, but that is underplayed, and felt rushed – as did much of the final act.

Other interesting ideas are brought up, and then dropped entirely. The concept of innocence – of what it is that Britten is drawn to, and the falsities and projections inherent within that – is vaguely raised. Then it is pushed aside for a moment of Britten going briefly mad… before he’s fine once more, freed from his infatuation with one child to, the play suggests, go off and become preoccupied with a different boy instead. Britten’s madness is potentially rich territory, but it is so quickly moved on from that we have no idea what we’re supposed to make of it, and whether we’re supposed to believe in it at all. In a better play, this would be a useful ambiguity – challenging the audience to think about how much we can ever believe a word Britten says – but in this production it feels rote.

There are elements of the staging that work well – David Hemmings (Liam Watson) – watches soft-gazed and mournful from the background throughout. His singing is lovely, but he often feels like he’s acting far too young – Watson performs like an eight-year-old, rather than a boy on the cusp of adolescence, and his delivery colludes with the writing to produce a fairly caricatured portrayal of a working-class boy.

The acting in general is mannered – only Jonathan Clarkson, who plays producer Basil Coleman, stood out. His was the most grounded performance, and his genteel, steely menace in a scene towards the end of the play was the only genuinely chilling moment. We see the way the world bends to protect the great man, and not the child – and for a moment the bare bones of the situation are exposed, allowed to be seen for what they are, before the production sweeps once more into melodrama.

Turning the Screw is, at best, lightly amusing, occasionally vaguely touching, and briefly thought-provoking. Only rarely does it manage to scratch the surface of the lives it is attempting to understand.