Fifty years ago, when asked about a reworking of his novel Brideshead Revisited, Waugh replied that 'today, its treatment (would be) rearranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain,' (Wilson, p.137).
Expert hands indeed. Bryony Lavery's brilliant world premier, an adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, was as much a gift to the performers as it was for the audience, who were privileged enough to be a part of the performance last night in Oxford. This co-production between English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal has six more performances at the Oxford Playhouse ending Saturday evening but I wish it could be extended. It is beautiful. It is brilliant. It is a standout.
Damian Cruden, the Artistic Director of York Theatre Royal, and familiar to audiences for directing the Olivier Award-winning production The Railway Children, has done an outstanding job. Oxford with its literary roots and passion for fine theatre should eagerly embrace and applaud it. From an ever-evolving character parade through to the very simple imaginative staging, composer Christopher Madin and sound designer Yvonne Gilbert have skilfully transported the audience through time periods and sound-collages that seemed at times to delve into the relational psyches of the characters.
Just before the commencement of the play (whether deliberate or unintentional) an array of characters on stage observe the audience. Then, with building excitement, in walk two soldiers discovering Brideshead, and the play begins.
If I were to choose just two highlights, the first would be the various silhouettes of characters reminiscent of Augustin Edouart. Edouart, one of the most famous silhouette artists of the nineteenth century, spent some fifteen years touring and working on his art in the UK. The second highlight; the subtle movement of black wall sets by the actors, creating windows and doors symbolic of the great mansion adding to a sense of an ever-changing architectural exhibition.
One line that, for me, struck at the heart of the relational turmoil in this story, was Sebastian's statement: 'See all, before, you forgive all'. The innocence, betrayal, humour and the heartache are sensed by the audience and the surrounds left to be imagined. The transition to different cities and across the high sea are cleverly crafted in minimal props and a dedication by all performers to assist with creating the moment.
There is such a wealth of talent in this cast, worthy of recognition by theatre guilds and future award evenings. There is a chemistry amongst these actors that is truly spellbinding. Two special mentions in particular. Firstly, to Shuna Snow, whose 'likeness of being', three different male roles, was artfully portrayed and believably authentic. The second, to Kiran Sonia Sawar for her entrancing and heartfelt portrayal of the youngest daughter. Oxford School of Drama should be very proud of its alumni, a promising local success.
In the wonderfully informative program notes, Lavery has a feature in which she refers to memories, creating mirages and energy amongst the actors. The journey of Brideshead Revisited sincerely expresses the depths of human fragility and personal struggles with Christian faith and love. Dare to imagine, and this play gives you space to do just that as it artfully progresses. The audience were at times spoken to directly in order to invite them to fully engage with the personal encounters and very private thoughts associated with these tragically interwoven lives.
Poignantly, following the at the end of the performance and final lengthy applause, the audience were reminded of the most recent tragic Orlando shooting. An appeal was launched with the actors holding change buckets at the doors to the theatre as patrons left. It was a treasured moment to voice personal thanks and congratulations to the actors.
This play deserves to have a long run all over the country and if you can't catch it in Oxford make sure and book it for somewhere else in its tour this year.