Muddy Reviews: Brideshead Revisited, Theatre Royal, Brighton
Like many people, my experience of Brideshead Revisited stems not from the Evelyn Waugh novel itself but the much-loved 1980s TV production that was spread over some 11 episodes.
It’s a brave person then who makes a new adaptation of the novel. Just as we can’t now imagine Pride and Prejudice without Colin Firth and THAT lake scene, many of us have the 80s images of Charles (played by Jeremy Irons) and Sebastian and his teddy with Castle Howard in Yorkshire as Brideshead.
But Bryony Lavery was up to the challenge and has made the first major adaptation for theatre, which she has been at pains to stress uses the novel not the TV series as its starting point. The resulting production, from the always reliable English Touring Theatre, is on at the Theatre Royal, Brighton until Saturday.
The story covers several years of the friendship between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte and the rest of his family who occupy stately pile Brideshead.
I was certainly not disappointed with Charles and co. The casting (with the exception of a nanny barely older than her former charge) was strong. I particularly enjoyed the performances from the rather lovely Sebastian, his controlling mother and his sister Cordelia, who was played with youthful exuberance. The cast works hard – many of them playing multiple roles, one of them a woman playing three men (my husband noticed, I didn’t).
The most striking aspect of this production however is the staging, which makes brilliantly inventive use of what’s called an iris system – with vertical and horizontal panels at the back of the stage cleverly widening and contracting in multiple ways like the iris of an eye, or the aperture of a camera.
This helps with the numerous scene shifts between Brideshead, Oxford and foreign locations – Venice for instance is suggested by the height of the vertical gaps in the backdrop and the dappled reflection of water, while the simple addition of an echo conjures a church. The system is also used in a stylised sense in a scene of plot exposition with the Flyte family members appearing like a portrait in a frame as their various traits are discussed.
In the scene where Charles and Julia Flyte meet in a storm on a cruise ship, ropes and a wheeled love seat are used to throw them round the stage, the back panels constantly sliding to reveal and hide Charles’ seasick wife. Frankly it’s impressive how the actors manage to keep up a conversation throughout.
The stage itself is relatively bare – the opulence of Brideshead and its occupants suggested instead by enough ornate chairs and vintage costumes to keep traditionalists happy. The 20s and 30s fashions (always a favourite of mine) are a feast for the eyes. There are also numerous small trapdoors in which the drunken Sebastian hides his booze to comic and later tragic effect.
The scenes, as with the set, are somewhat fragmented which can take a little settling into but does evoke the nature of memory, with Charles looking back on key points (he also part narrates by the use of asides.) Lavery is quoted in the programme as saying: “We have made this piece into a memory play… showing how memories arrive and depart… not at all tidily… but crashing into each other like dodgem cars.”
One device I felt was less successful was the positioning of a vintage microphone between people at certain points. The idea seemed to be to emphasise when confidentialities were taking place but at other times whispers into it appeared to represent Charles’ subconscious.
The second half of the story drags somewhat compared to the first so the inventive staging helped keep my attention here. My husband, who has read the novel, was not disappointed either, with whole familiar passages of the text resurfacing on stage.
As for the sexual ambiguity of Charles and Sebastian in the 80s production – that has also received an update. “So are they lovers or what?” was the question that frustrated me as a young viewer. This 2016 production includes a kiss.
Brideshead Revisited is on at the Theatre Royal, Brighton until Saturday June 11 atgtickets.com