From The Stage, 20 Nov 2020:
Of the following, who did Marlon Brando not act with: Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner or Thora Hird?
He changed representations of male sexuality smouldering opposite Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire; he must have done something with screen goddess Gardner; so, naturally, you’d be guessing the odd woman out is Hird—and you’d be wrong.
Yes, Brando really did make a film with the late, great Hird and, even more astonishingly for Brando, typically cast for raw sex appeal, the source material was by Henry James. It was Michael Winner’s little-remembered 1971 film The Nightcomers, both prequel and sequel to The Turn of the Screw, James’ 1898 novella of repression and desire. Hird played reproving housekeeper Mrs Grose, Brando was malevolent Quint, having sex with Stephanie Beacham’s Miss Jessel.
In 1961, director Jack Cardiff made the story into the shiveringly suggestive, black-and-white masterpiece (I don’t use that term lightly) The Innocents. And seven years earlier, composer Benjamin Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper released the dangers of the extraordinarily ambivalent tale into a taut and creepy chamber opera.
And a new production of that by Opera Glassworks, conducted by John Wilson at London’s Wilton’s Music Hall, was three days from opening when the first lockdown hit.
“We were poleaxed,” director Selina Cadell says. To shore up their investment of time, work and £160,000 from donors, Cadell and producer Eliza Thompson managed to rebook the cast of six singers and 13 musicians for a run in October. But as weeks of lockdown turned into months, it looked like the project would be scuppered. At which point, they rethought it for film.
With the perfectly captured, decayed grandeur of its main, high-vaulted space dating back to 1859, the thrillingly atmospheric Wilton’s translates perfectly into the chilly, remote country house and garden in which the ghostly actions occur. Designer Tom Piper, who, among other things, memorably covered the Tower of London with poppies, seized the opportunity to make the entire building a film set.
Cadell has been training singers as actors at the National Opera Studio for years and is a strong believer in singers delivering truthful, nuanced performances rather than old-fashioned, “stand-and-deliver” emoting. But opera tends to work fast on scant rehearsal, which militates against the kind of subtlety required for film acting. But here, her cast had already been working in an intimate space in immense detail for five-and-a-half weeks – ideal for film.
She and Thompson have taken the opportunity to experiment. “We weren’t interested in live capture,” says Thompson. “But we didn’t want the fact that it was intended to be a stage production to be lost.”
That has influenced not just their approach with singers and a working method with camera-director Dominic Best across the six-day shoot, but also with the individual players forming John Wilson’s orchestra.
“Covid restrictions meant we couldn’t have all the musicians there together,” says Thompson. “So with the auditorium becoming a Suffolk reed bed, we’ve planted them throughout the film. As the story progresses, it becomes more anarchic.”
Cadell and Thompson have capitalised on the opera’s unique construction, individual scenes interspersed with an instrumental theme and 15 variations, to enhance the work’s filmic, non-linear nature.
They shun the idea of “a concept”, but they’re using the variations, in which usually little or nothing happens on stage except a scene change, to explore the heightened atmosphere. Indeed, how the ghosts haunt the house, and pull the audience in, is the cinematic story they’re attempting to tell.
The performance, still in the edit prior to being distributed via arts channel Marquee TV, is an equally impressive advance born out of Covid necessity. The vocals were filmed live, with the singers using microphones but without the orchestra. Instead, using monitors, John Wilson conducted them against live keyboards. Once the singers’ tracks were laid down, the orchestra was recorded to fit the singers’ interpretations, which is how it should be.
As ‘What I Did During Covid Time Out’, this is seriously impressive. The result, as yet unseen, promises to be exciting. “There is possibly a new language out there,” says Cadell, “a cross-fertilisation between opera, theatre and film.” It certainly sounds like the beginning of something. ~David Benedict
- “The Story So Far, with Conductor John Wilson”
- “The Story So Far; Or, Conductor John Wilson—His Limits”
- Kindle ebook of my Hollywood comedy-mystery COLD OPEN here.
- Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.
- Free pdf of my memoir re the Gyllenhaals A POET FROM HOLLYWOOD here.