“I had been there before; I knew all about it…”
THERE always was a chance that Brideshead Revisited would be as much about York Theatre Royal, newly swanky after its £6 million renovation, as about this adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel.
True, this collaboration with English Touring Theatre will tread across other stages, but for a York audience part of the thrill lies in seeing how well the revamped theatre works.
Very well indeed is the answer to that; if there are problems, and there are, they lie mostly with the story. In theatrical terms, and as a way of showing off the capabilities of the new stage, Brideshead is a triumph.
In a sense this adaptation by Bryony Lavery, as directed here by Damian Cruden, is notable for what you do not see. In a play about a great house, that house is never even glimpsed in a literal sense; in a scene in which Charles Ryder’s paintings go on show, not a brushstroke is seen, just frames left empty so that characters can fill the hung frames.
The adaptable new space is used in a number of thrilling ways, with a series of black sliding panels dividing the stage, and then moving across to reveal perhaps a staircase, or the chapel at Brideshead, as represented by only a cross.
Sometimes these panels suggest the closing lens of a camera, or perhaps a disappearing perspective; all of a part with a production that uses memory, and the tricks of memory, as a way into the book.
All of this works fantastically well. Visual representations of Brideshead – a backdrop of Castle Howard, say – would have been a distraction. What we see here is much more intriguing and satisfying, leaving the story to come at us in a series of memory vignettes.
After the darkness of the opening scene, in which Charles Ryder (Brian Ferguson) is seen returning to Brideshead during the war, light flows in as he recalls his introduction to the eccentric, beguiling world of the Flyte family, and especially his Oxford chum Sebastian (Christopher Simpson), impossible, briefly dazzling, and heading along a path to self-destruction.
The sliding panels are used to brilliant effect in Sara Perks’ design at this point, backed up by Richard G Jones’ lighting design (the lighting effects often stand in for scenery). As Sebastian introduces Charles to his family, they are behind one of the screens, as if framed by a painting, and at the mention of each name, the panel expands and another family member pops into view.
This visual playfulness works a treat, with everything that is difficult to portray being filled by clever theatricality. So the stormy sea passage in which Charles and Julia Flyte (Rosie Hilal) are thrown together is summoned up by having them sit in two wheeled chairs, one facing forwards, the other backwards, as they are pulled across the stage from each side by ropes. This summons up both the violence of the sea and the high waves of their relationship.
And let’s not forget the music: Christopher Madin’s lovely compositions sweep many scenes along, and are strongly evocative of faded memories.
Brideshead is, I guess, about many things, from youthful hedonism, to religion, guilt, unhappiness, war and, well, just the impossibility of life. It is also, and herein lies some of the difficulty with this production, about a fairly unattractive set of posh people self-indulgently spinning out their pampered days. And that is not always an easy sell – and one reason, all those years ago, that the TV series Brass had such glee poking fun at the original Brideshead Revisited seen a few years earlier on ITV (both were Granada productions, incidentally).
Aside from that, the other difficulty lies in the pacing. The first half fair sweeps by in a haze of golden memory and the occasional dark shadow; the second half opens brightly with jazz in New York and the stormy sea-crossing. After that the momentum lags rather, and the protracted death of Lord Marchmain (Paul Shelley) seems to take an awfully long time, as do all the wearisome arguments about Catholicism.
As ever with this production, the setting at this point is very satisfying, with the grand four-poster bed being assembled before your eyes.
There isn’t a bad performance from the busy nine-strong cast, many of whom double up on roles, as well as moving the sparse pieces of set around. Shuna Snow plays three quite different roles – and at one point executes a swift costume change on stage.
It is hard to believe that this production of Brideshead Revisited would have worked at all as well on the old stage, and York is certainly blessed with a splendid new/old theatre.
Do go along: there is very much to savour here, and this theatre deserves our support.