Left – Will Cox and Ben Francis. Photo – Oliver Toth
I feel privileged to have seen this excellent production by Independent Theatre directed by Rob Croser. It was a joyful, demanding, emotionally churning play that doesn’t go away at its end but leaves so much to think about afterwards.
Adapted from novel to stage by Roger Parsley, the play tells the story by Evelyn Waugh of the accidental meeting of Lord Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder, both students at Oxford University. It’s an inauspicious beginning of his academic life when Sebastian spews up through a window of his ground floor rooms after a drinking spree.
Remorseful the morning after, Sebastian’s offers flowers and friendship which leads to Charles being invited to the stately home called Brideshead. It’s such a banal title – “Brideshead Revisited” – but it’s when Charles finds himself nearby during the war when he is an officer in the army that he goes back and the memories crowd in of what had been.
One of the astonishing things about this production is that there are 23 characters in the cast. Three of them play the roles of Charles Ryder (Will Cox), Sebastian Flyte (Ben Francis) and Julia Flyte (Madeleine Herd). The other twenty are played by five more people. There is little done to disguise them as someone else so depiction depends on the difficult feat of convincing an audience straight away that they are who Waugh says they are. That they did it well is an indication of just how well this group works together.
Under the direction of Rob Croser, his and David Roach’s design and the lighting design of Bob Weatherly, we are in Oxford, London, Venice, Fez and the impressive Brideshead Castle. The use of a raked stage and very clever use of a scrim backdrop on to which photographs of exterior and interior scenes, some of great beauty are projected. It also allows for characters to be behind the transparent screen all of which make for variation and a seamless, convincing and at times beautiful set with minimal furniture to be moved here and there throughout the show.
Will Cox is outstanding as Charles Ryder. It wasn’t long ago that this young man gave a stellar performance as Prince Hal/Henry V in “Cry God for Harry” at the Space and previous roles have seen the rise of his enormous talent as he tackles these difficult parts with remarkable aplomb and sensitivity. I bet my bottom dollar he will go far in this sphere if he so chooses. It is no easy task to match him but there was such a wonderful rapport between him and Ben Francis as Sebastian, so much shared angst as each knew what was happening to their love as through the years Sebastian destroyed himself with alcohol, that there were moments of utter joy at being able to see such understanding and artistry in their work. His disintegration from a flamboyant nanny and teddy loving, likeable show-off to a sulky, suspicious, peevish and child-like man was very good to watch. Waugh only hinted at their homosexuality due to the era in which the novel was written but the company chose to make it quite clear in this interpretation. Charles’ despair as he knew he couldn’t save his friend and later as he realised he loved Julia Flyte and couldn’t save her either from what was destroying her and her brother, was palpable.
And that’s where the rest of the cast and their home “Brideshead” comes in. Lord and Lady Marchmain are separated. He, to avoid suffocation, had gone to live in Venice, divorced and taken another wife. Lady Marchmain is left with their four offspring, teenager Cordelia, Sebastian, Julia and Brideshead Flyte the ultimate heir. It would be a mistake to blame her for the result of her deadly control of them because, to her, she was offering them salvation for life and death in the form of her deeply held belief in Catholicism. As Waugh said, “The whole thing is steeped in theology”. For Lord Marchmain it was suffocation to the point of hating his life, his wife and religion in all its forms, which he renounced with fervour. Cordelia embraced it, Julia believed she could take it or leave it while Sebastian fought an awful battle within to escape both Catholicism and his family and his terrible guilt about doing so. He did it with alcohol which, as it inevitably does, turned against him in the end leaving him in a wretched state caring for whining, selfish Kurt because he thought he owed it to someone to care for them. Charles, as an outsider, could see what was happening but his love for Sebastian and then Julia was no match for what had been imbued in them since childhood.
One of the most stunning scenes in this play is witnessing the death of Lord Marchmain. The family, to the disbelief, then horror and angst of Charles, have brought in a Catholic priest to administer the last rites, should he relent at the last moment and ask for them. Since he can’t talk, the priest asks for a sign to show his repentance. I swear the audience held its breath as it waited.
Madeleine Herd, as Julia, looked elegant in the costumes designed for her, and a very good job was done by the costume crew for all characters in the 1920s and 40s. There were times, especially in the last scene when the lines she was saying to Charles did not sound convincing as if she, Madeleine, did not believe in them. David Roach and Lyn Wilson were convincing in their numerous roles. Paul Reichstein’s camp, garrulous and over-the-top Anthony Blanche was a joy and his brash, divorced, Canadian businessman, Rex Mottram an enjoyable nasty piece of work. Brodie Watson-Victory was particularly convincing as Kurt but lacked the authority one would expect in the heir to Brideshead and head of the family there. Emily Stewart’s voice was at times very shrill when she was playing Cordelia but she moderated her voice as she became older in the play.
Programme notes, collated by Rob Croser, were informative and most interesting and the cover design a perfect indication of what was to come in content. What came in performance was very good, very satisfying and a very great pleasure to see. Three hearty cheers for Independent Theatre and long may it reign to the great benefit of Adelaide’s theatre-going population .
Independent Theatre presents
by adapted by Roger Parsley from Evelyn Waugh's novel
Director Rob Croser
Venue: Goodwood Theatre | 166a Goodwood Road, Goodwood SA
Dates: 17 – 25 November 2017