Turning the Screw examines the role of power, what it can mean to be vulnerable and saying no to a cultural figure of the time.
Written by Kevin Kelly, this production explores the life of classical composer, Benjamin Britten during the pink panic in the 1950s as he grapples with homosexuality, while composing The Turn of the Screw.
During this period, Britten welcomes the young star of the opera, choirboy David Hemmings, into the home he shares with his partner Peter Pears.
I caught up with Kevin Kelly for a behind-the-scenes look at the production.
What drew you to this period and this relationship within the life and career of Britten?
I have always found that real life stories and especially hidden history stories are much more interesting that fictionalised ones.
Britten and Pears were living as a couple when it was illegal, and they could have ended up in jail at any moment. As a young gay man growing up in Dublin in the 1980s, being gay was still illegal. Britten and Pears existed as one of the few role models showing that you could have a long-lasting relationship with someone else that would last a lifetime, just as theirs did.
Britten, at the time, was feted by the establishment - he'd been presented with a medal from the newly crowned Elizabeth II - but the 'pink panic' was at its height and gay men and women were being hounded out of public life.
Rather than keep his head down, he chooses to compose the opera Turning the Screw which was full of dangerous themes of obsession, seduction, and the loss of childhood innocence.
I wanted to know why he took such a risk!
Did exploring this story change your opinion of Britten at all?
I'm a great fan of the poems of Wilfred Owen, who was killed just a week before the end of the Great War. My first exposure to Britten was the War Requiem, where Britten interposed some of Owen’s greatest poems between the Latin text of a mass for the dead.
My husband, Paul, is from East Anglia - he introduced me to more of Britten’s music and I feel in love with it.
Britten was an amazingly complex man, very loyal to those who supported him but ruthless in cutting off those who criticised him. Initially, I thought that it was very sad that he was so thin-skinned but as I delved deeper, I’ve realised that deep down he had a lack of confidence in his own capabilities and had to build what Auden called, “a warm nest of love” so he could compose.
I totally understand that - if we spend all our time wondering what someone else is going to think of our work then we would never take any risks and nothing new would ever be created.
Through a contemporary #MeToo lens, the power dynamic between Britten and Hemmings seems problematic. You talk about trying to show the nuances of that relationship - why is that important to you?
I feel that we are in an age of 'goodies' and 'baddies' - we are told it is simple, it’s all black and white. In my experience, life is composed of shades of grey and I am wary of anyone who tells me it’s simple.
From the contemporary records of the relationship between Britten and Hemmings, it’s clear they were very close. Hemmings has been described as knowing beyond his years and it was that confidence that may well have attracted Britten to cast him.
In the actual Opera, Miles is played by a 12- or 13-year-old boy who portrays total innocence as well as behaving towards the governess in an unsettling way.
Hemmings says in his autobiography that he was sexually precocious, but that Britten never abused his trust. Hemmings was only 12 at the time so the responsibility needs to be on Britten as the adult. But Britten would break off friendships with boys as soon as they reached puberty - was he afraid of what might happen, or of not being able to control himself?
We have seen so many situations recently where there is a huge power imbalance - how do you say 'no' to someone who has the power to make or break your career? Can there ever be true consent when they are powerful, and you are powerless?
Do you need to be an opera buff in order to be able to engage with these characters and their story?
If you know the opera, then you will spot subtle echoes all through the play and you’ll be able to spot the way that the opera was put together. There’s also a mixture of live singing and some recorded tracks.
But don’t worry if you don’t know the opera because Gary Tushaw - who is playing Benjamin Britten - will explain it to you as part of the play. Maybe, after seeing the performance, you will go home and listen to the opera – it’s very approachable!
What do you hope that people feel when watching Turning the Screw?
As a playwright, you are encouraged to think about that very question – what do you want the audience to be talking about in the bar afterward? I’d like them to agree that it is an interesting story and that there isn’t a black and white answer. Was Hemmings using Britten to get a start in his chosen career? Possibly! Was Britten using his position of power to get close to Hemmings? Possibly! Were the people around Britten aware of his growing obsession with Hemmings and trying to stop him? Possibly! Might Britten have wanted to go further than he did with Hemmings? Possibly!
They’re all of the grey areas that I’d love people to explore afterwards and it’s not about allocating blame or saying whose fault it may have been – ultimately, I want people to say: It’s complicated!
- Benjamin Britten – Gary Tushaw
- David Hemmings – Liam Watson
- Peter Pears Simon – Willmont
- Imogen Holst – Jo Wickham
- Basil Coleman – Jonathan Clarkson
- Harry Morris – Sam McHale
Turning the Screw is quite a remarkable piece of theatre – taking real-world people and relationships, at a specific point of time, in the midst of a creative process, and exploring some of the known unknowns as to how some of those conversations might have gone and the dynamics in the room.
Kevin Kelly set out to write a play that illustrated the complexity of these characters and the choices that they’re making, and he has achieved that. Tim McArthur’s direction honours the respectfulness and almost reverence with which Kelly has approached this story.
The cast is outstanding. These are demanding roles – some serious singing is required and everyone delivers. Gary Tushaw as Britten effectively channels his inner Benedict Cumberbatch, and Liam Watson as Hemmings seamlessly switches between adult character and child character and feels authentic enough as the young choirboy.
For a play that is steeped in opera and opera-making, the music is always accessible. There is quite a bit of exposition, which is understandable in this context, but there are moments when it verges into the territory of dramatised Wikipedia entry.
The biggest challenge with this work is that it’s difficult to find much sympathy for the central character of Britten. Sure, he’s a musical genius, but what this play is exploring is his problematic relationship with a 12-year-old boy, and his pattern of behaviour of problematic relationships with boys.
While the play works hard to show us how difficult this is for Britten, whatever moral lens you try and apply it’s pretty much impossible to find much empathy for a creative genius who can’t resist sharing a bed with adolescent boys.
This is a play worth seeing. If you don’t know much about Benjamin Britten, that’s okay – you probably won’t like him but you’ll come out understanding a bit more about a man whose work defines English opera.
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