Directing Brideshead Revisited, one of the most celebrated and iconic works in the English language, is, paradoxically, both an absolute dream and an absolute nightmare. And not only because directing a play in Oxford is somewhat akin to competing in a sort of dramatic decathlon, where a multitude of arcane logistical and creative skills are called for. There are also more serious issues to deal with. The fact that the play is set in the beautiful, yet transient Oxford of the 1920’s and peopled by some of the most decadent, outré characters ever created – notably, Sebastian Flyte, the aesthete par excellence with the teddy bear – means that, in presenting the play, one is inevitably working against the confines of the age-old Oxonian stereotype.
After musing over this problem, I concluded that, contrary to what most people – who have probably been heavily influenced by the sweeping, arc-shots of Castle Howard in the seminal television adaptation– may think, Brideshead is much less of a swooning love letter to aestheticism and a lost golden age, and much more of a human story. In fact, in this adaptation, by removing the grand, visual aspect that the other incarnations have focused on – that can be simply and more effectively suggested on stage and through the characters’ words – what will remain exposed is, I hope, the crux of the novel: the raw human emotion and feeling underneath.
I think that the true power of the play lies in its terrible and ultimately apocalyptic depiction of human interaction, centred on the self-destructive relationships between Charles, Sebastian, Julia and indeed the entire Marchmain family. For me, Brideshead Revisited is essentially a modern tragedy about its protagonists fatal inability to accept the onslaught of reality on their idyll and, like all tragedies, its theme is a universal one. The search for happiness and spiritual fulfilment, the desire to escape from the harshness of reality and the constant re-evaluation of past and present are a part of all of our lives. The flamboyant costumes and the extravagant dialogue, especially in the Oxford scenes, are not there to perpetuate the Oxford stereotype at all, but to illustrate that all this aestheticism is simply a mask to attempt to hide the tortured struggle within the psyche of the characters. If you come and see the play, I very much hope that you will be able to decide for yourselves whether the Brideshead stereotype has been redefined from a mere caricature, to something infinitely more moving.