Christina Drollas’ adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited looks all set to be a nuanced and polished set of performances, with just a few creases to iron out before opening night in seventh week. Although I have gleaned only a glimpse of the set, the full ensemble apparently includes such flamboyant items as a stuffed crow and a stag skull, which befits the claustrophobia of riches surrounding Sebastian Flyte, even if it is also indicative of some guilty ostentation on the director’s part. Her adaptation of the script is sound, and leading men Charles and Sebastian clearly enjoy it, delivering their lines with an enjoyable precision of inflection.
The physical characterisation of the play’s central figures is a definite forte, as the extent to which they mimic each other conveys much of their relationships. On his first appearance, Charles Ryder (Ziad Samaha) sits with his knees primly together, nervously fiddling with his own fingers. This initially contrasts neatly with the movements of Sebastian Flyte (Daniel Draper), which are languid rather than nervous: lounging about on a table or sofa. Charles, idolising Sebastian, begins to take on his mannerisms as he takes on his lifestyle. The irony is that as Charles takes on the outward appearances of Sebastian’s confidence, Sebastian digresses into alcoholism as he is revealed to be chronically insecure. The depth of his attachment to his childhood is gradually revealed (he talks sulkily to his teddy bear about the difficulties of being taken seriously), and the way this sours his relationship with Charles is appropriately painful to watch.
A few other actors deserve special mention. Richard Hill’s Anthony Blanche is wonderfully theatrical, such that his infectious enthusiasm for the sound of his own voice makes his anecdotes somehow more compelling. The way he simpers and preens is certainly entertaining, although his homosexuality is so overtly and stereotypically depicted that he is in danger, perhaps, of becoming a parody of himself. When his mood darkens, it is difficult to really appreciate his anger through the comedy. But then, perhaps, a parody is exactly what the character of Anthony Blanche is, and we are not meant to take his anxieties seriously. Sebastian is certainly unruffled by his stormy exit.
Others to look out for include Jasper (Jon Turnbull), who exhibits some gloriously wrinkled facial expressions to convey his disgust of English literature, second-class degrees and the like; and Bridey (William Richards), who manages to encapsulate the quintessential British Lord by a combination of deep, grand intonation and permanently anxious eyebrows.
One of the biggest question marks over the play at this stage in the production is how director Christina Drollas intends the audience to see that Charles’ infatuation with Julia Flyte is connected to, or even born from, his initial infatuation with her brother, Sebastian. In the novel, Charles described Sebastian as the “forerunner” to his love for Julia: whether this line will be included in the director’s adaptation of the script, or even whether the idea will be explored in the play, remains to be seen. From a preview of act one, Julia (Becky Moore) is perhaps a little fierce, and her movements are quite sharp, her dialogue well-controlled. Sebastian is petulant, sulky, languorous and temperamental, and it is difficult to see how Julia could possibly come to remind Charles so poignantly of her brother in later scenes. We shall see.
It will also be very interesting to see the kind of light in which Catholicism appears by the end of this adaptation of Brideshead. By the end of the first act, Sebastian is driven to alcoholism by the stifling rules and regulations of his family, though whether this is due more to his mother’s devout Catholicism or to his aristocratic social standing has yet to be expounded. Certainly Lady Marchmain herself (Sophie Ackers) exhibits a lethal mixture of piety, self-deprecation and hypocrisy, claiming that she has no place to reproach Charles, taking responsibility for Sebastian with a guilt-ridden self-martyrdom, and then, incongruously, being venomously critical of Charles’ actions. It is difficult to see how this dark depiction of Catholicism will lighten enough to culminate in Charles’ implied conversion (if this is included in Drollas’ adaptation at all). All things considered, I await opening night with anticipation, and quite some curiosity.