I’m very excited to say that York Theatre Royal has finally opened its doors after a yearlong refurbishment. The main house’s seating has been re-designed and the café and foyer are newly designed too. To kick their re-opening off, the theatre has teamed up with the English Touring Theatre and playwright Bryony Lavery to bring to the stage a new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited.
Brideshead Revisited is mainly set in the 1920s and brings us into the world of Charles Ryder (Brian Ferguson), a young undergraduate at Oxford. There he meets Lord Sebastian Flyte (Christopher Simpson), a young gentleman who comes from an eccentric family of aesthetes. Sebastian takes Charles to meet his family, who live in the prominent and magnificent Brideshead Castle in Wiltshire. Throughout, we see Ryder navigate a family slowly growing apart amidst a slow poison of rigid Catholicism and Sebastian’s alcoholism, against the backdrop of clandestine love and internal conflict.
So Brideshead Revisited has quite a large narrative that spans several years, and charts the lengthy development of several of its key characters. Thankfully, Bryony Lavery’s brand new adaptation does a brilliant job of condensing the action of the original novel into scenes that contain plenty of both pithy and detailed explorations of character. Told from Charles’s perspective, there is occasionally a blurring of past and present as the character recounts the narrative. At times, however, scenes can appear sluggish or monotonous in their sense of pace and trajectory, making the action seem to drag on for a tad too long.
The main root of this issue falls on the characters, which don’t seem to be quite as well developed as they could be. They appear somewhat depthless and tracking the change within them can be a bit tricky, making it hard to engage with them and the narrative they underpin. This also inhibits the company’s ability to create engaging and absorbing atmospheres, making it difficult to become wrapped up in the world of the play.
Perhaps the most powerful and striking feature of Brideshead Revisited is its overall visual aesthetic and scenography, excellently designed by Sara Perks. There’s a distinctly minimalist attitude towards the design, with very little furniture being used. At the back of the space, large black flats continually move to create doorways, windows and vantage points that emphasise entrances and exits and maintain the fluidity of the piece’s scene transitions. Christopher Madin has also composed some wonderfully compelling pieces of music that are laid over the production’s transitions and poignant moments in scenes. Topping off this well-considered scenography is Richard G. Jones’s lighting design, which incorporates lots of vibrant colours that offsets the often sombre, dramatic tone of the piece.
Speaking of tone, this is perhaps my largest problem with Brideshead Revisited. At times, it isn’t exactly clear what tone director Damian Cruden is trying to evoke in the scenes. It almost seems as if the production can’t make up its mind and decide whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, making it harder to sympathise with the characters and their position within the narrative. Consistency here would have been the key, and directorial choices made in terms of how particular characters interact with others and the audience spoils the tonal consistency of the piece.
Despite a few flaws in character development and clarity of tone, however, this production of Brideshead Revisited is enjoyable, and marks the welcome return of a marvellous theatre. Ultimately, it’s a superb example of how a well-considered scenography truly can shape and define a production’s lasting impression on you.
Brideshead Revisited is playing at the York Theatre Royal until 30 April, before continuing on tour. For more information and tickets, visit the York Theatre Royal website. Photo: Mark Douet