Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Luke Sheppard. Set and Costume Designer David Woodhead, Projection Designer Andrez Goulding, Lighting designer Lizzie Powell, Sound Designer Ben and Max Ringham, Movement Director Tom Jackson Greaves, Casting Director Stuart Burt CDG, Associate Director Leigh Toney, Production Manager Digby Robinson, Costume Supervisor Ester Mangas, Props Supervisor Lizzie Frankl, Marketing Maidwell Marketing, General Management Simon Friend Entertainment; PR Story House PR.
Till March 19th
You know this. If you don’t I can’t possibly tell you. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code arrives at Brighton’s Theatre Royal co-adapted by Rachel Wagstaff (think Flowers for Mrs Harris at Chichester) who teams up with frequent collaborator Duncan Abel (Girl on a Train) to bring an almost breathlessly slick theatrical condensation of this ‘it threatens Western civilisation’ plot. After that impossibly long sentence (look for the Fibonacci sequence) I’m breathless too.
Certainly this production manages to telegraph the essentials in two hours flat, and during its run has apparently accelerated, knocking off several minutes. The hard-working cast led by Nigel Harman (superb in Glengarry Glen Ross here three years ago), Danny John-Jules and – making her theatrical debut – Hannah Rose Caton seamlessly present characters and flickering cameos with etched-in vividness to match the digitally active walls around them.
Director Luke Sheppard knows how to pace and place his characters, with Tom Jackson Greaves’ movement direction. Though with one exception the real star is David Woodhead’s walled set, with Andrez Goulding’s digital design, projection and artwork, which dance, gyrate, squiggle numbers, pop up and drop down with relentless aplomb yet create a church atmosphere of for instance hushed sanctity: lots of those, ending in a light-pulsing pyramid. Only the Last Supper projection seems vague, but then so’s the mural, decaying even in Da Vinci’s lifetime. Even here the sheer verve of close-up to display a telling image overrides the muzzy fresco.
All this is suffused and blindsided by Lizzie Powell’s lighting. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound too is relatively restrained. They score a real coup deploying the late medieval song L’Homme Armé (‘beware the armed man’) that every composer from Josquin to Palestrina based a mass on. Not only timely and timeless; there’s quite a few armed men.
Oh, plot. Professor Sauniere (Andrew Lewis, and as Sauniere as well as others he continually returns) is found dead on the floor of the Louvre gallery; a pentagram in blood scored on his chest. Inspector Fache (Alpha Kargbo) summons Harman’s Robert Langdon to help. He has a hidden motive: he thinks Langdon did it.
However cryptographer Sophie Neveu (Caton) manages to persuade his conflicted deputy Collet (Leigh Lothian) to let them escape. And Neveu happens to be Sauniere’s estranged granddaughter. Where to? Langdon knows only one man who can help them, after a code-breaking diversion to a bank to grab something of Sauniere’s.
Cue John-Jules’ Sir Leigh Teabing, greatest expert on the Grail. And with a saffron swirl of a night gown John-Jules lands all the best jokes and revels in them. The adaptors here seize on all the humour they can, not all confined to Teabing, and it pays off. On his private plane the scholar announces mordantly: ‘and note the nearest exit, since you’re avoiding arrest.’
London’s and eventually Scotland’s churches calibrate a whistle-stop collection of clues, mishaps, losses, breaks, kidnaps and double-crosses all the way up north. Fache and Collet in hot pursuit begin to have second thoughts. So do Neveu and Langdon.
Harman’s Langdon is neatly understated, wryly New Hampshire like Brown himself, perfectly nuanced. It’s a central though not fizzing role and Harman is too good to overstate Langdon’s scholarly restraint (‘probably a virgin’ refers to him as well as Isaac Newton) but breaks through in a heartening hug. And he has unexpected tricks.
Caton manages both the uber-bright Neveu’s quickness and simmering anxiety as well as youthful appeal. It’s a tricky role: Caton’s Neveu has to appear younger than she is (Neveu’s about twenty-eight) with palpable vulnerability; but a code-breaking toughie professional too. Caton brings all this off in a truly assured, high-visibility debut.
John-Jules has an unfair advantage as Teabing. He’s urbane, irascible, witty, playful and tricksy, as well as other glinting things. He could easily dominate but all this cast work as a team, and each shine. The distinguished Lewis brings sobriety and tenderness to his flashback visitations as Sauniere. Blake’s Vernet brings anxious decency to the fore. Lothian’s Collet signals an even more conflicted decency, and triumphs through a visible struggle. Kargbo as Fache has strong presence though not all his words are ideally clear.
Joshua Lacey’s Silas shines in another outstanding small role: the self-flagellating, confused and double-crossed worker for the Teacher and Opus Dei, he brings a balletic agony to self-harm and suffering. Silas’s voice havers to a baffled wail. His apotheosis is true pathos, another fine dramatic touch.
Alasdair Buchan’s Remy, servant to Teabing and much else, burls in with apparent rough edges concealing a far deeper education, etched with dark urbanity. Finally as Sister Sandrine early on, Marie later, and singer of ‘O Virtus Sapienta’, Debra Michaels stills everything with a grave tenderness; it lends a headlong production some humanity and grace. Most of the cast work as a beautifully blocked ensemble too, bringing ritual even to scene changes.
If you know the novel, you’ll really enjoy this, since it brings the fundamentals of Brown’s plot alive in flashes of lightning, and strokes of bold theatricality. If you don’t it’s a plot easier to follow than say a plotline: you’ll come away exhilarated by possibilities. Most of all it improves on Brown in at least two respects: with theatrical humour and bold gestures, and a set that tells the story almost as much as the strong, efficient cast.