I caught the world première of the English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal’s co-production of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 classic novel Brideshead Revisited in Bath during an extensive UK tour, and it was fairly obvious why no playwright had ever tackled the iconic work before now…
Bryony Lavery’s ambitious new adaptation is a whirlwind ‘revisit’ of the work, most famously adapted as an 11-part 1981 Granada television series with a theme tune by Geoffrey Burgon that still sends shivers down the spine, and I imagine that any fan of it, or the original book, would be intrigued to see how the complexities of the story work in this medium. Although Brideshead Revisited was given the full Hollywood film treatment in 2008, the television series still makes it pretty difficult to imagine anyone other than Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in the central roles, and even Castle Howard, the location chosen as the ancestral seat of the Flyte family in the series, continues to attract more visitors as a result of its Brideshead fame than for practically any other reason.
Lavery does her best not to get bogged down by Waugh’s evocative descriptions, (if she had we’d have been in the theatre a lot longer than two hours), and a huge amount of the story is inevitably glossed over; yet the energy of hurtling on at breakneck speed is actually more absorbing, aided by both the lighting (Richard G. Jones) and set design (Sara Perks) which is almost akin to a modern opera staging in its boldness; forcing the audience to rely on the symbolism contained within it in order to explore the intricacies of the plot.
The success of this production was always going to rest on how little you find yourself recalling either the book or the television series, and thankfully this play is very much its own master. Strong direction by Damian Cruden was crucial in fully conveying the themes of first love, lost youth, wealth, class, sexuality and religion; as told through the reminiscences of protagonist Charles Ryder (Brian Ferguson), a man who doesn’t come from the ruling class and is therefore easily entranced by the charming aristocrat Lord Sebastian Flyte (Christopher Simpson) whom he meets at Oxford University.
Things take an altogether different turn when Sebastian invites Charles to his home Brideshead, however, and he soon finds himself embroiled in the lives of the entire family, from his friend’s deeply religious mother Lady Marchmain to his siblings; Bridey (played by the effervescent Shuna Snow), Cordelia (Kiran Sonia Sawar), and the beautiful Julia (Rosie Hilal) who bears such a striking resemblance to Sebastian.
The swarthy Simpson is a dreamy, lackadaisical Sebastian when clutching his teddy Aloysius and he and Ferguson have a strong chemistry that is illustrated without the need for gratuitous nudity – other than a shirt off. Ferguson is hardly ever off stage as Charles and is well supported by the five other members of the cast, most of whom play more than one part and each make an important contribution in changing the carefree mood of the first half to one with a much more serious undertone in the second. Caroline Harker is particularly noteworthy as both Nanny (who resides at Brideshead even though Sebastian and his siblings have long outgrown the nursery) and the seemingly saintly, yet darkly malevolent, Lady Marchmain who places Charles as much under her spell as she has her own children. Lord Marchmain (Paul Shelley) has meanwhile decamped to Venice, abandoning both Catholicism and his wife in favour of a life spent with his glamorous mistress, Cara, and where he is surrounded by art and um…Catholic churches.
Lady Marchmain’s piousness not only fails to save Sebastian from drunken oblivion but only encourages his disobedience and an inevitable course of self-destruction ensues. When Charles tracks Sebastian down years later he is merely a shell of the golden adolescent he once was and the only ounce of happiness he finds is when clutching a bottle of contraband alcohol, prompting his friend to not only mourn their lost intimacy but to become so obsessed by the heady memories of Brideshead that his present life can never compete.
Unhappily married to Celia (also played by Samantha Lawson), when Charles meets Julia by chance on a cruise he is quite literally all at sea; again intoxicated at the prospect of becoming a part of the Flyte family. Alas, his affair with Sebastian’s sister proves as stormy as the weather conditions in which they are reunited; brilliantly illustrated by the two actors being hauled up and down the length of the stage in chairs with wheel castors attached to rope which two other cast members manipulate to create the impression of a turbulent sea – an adaptable cast indeed.
This production might not have romantic backdrops of landscaped gardens or a soundtrack you can hum along to, but it’s all the more thought-provoking because of it. There is a depth and sensitivity pouring out of each cast member; all apparently united in their desire to tell the story of how one man’s life can be so affected by a desire to be a part of a class and family to which he was never destined to belong.
We reviewed this English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal production of Brideshead Revisited at the Theatre Royal Bath where it will play until Saturday 7th May as part of an extensive UK tour. For forthcoming dates and to purchase tickets please visit the website.