Apparently, ‘directing is like playing music’. It is also rather like trying to negotiate the Oxford High Street on a unicycle, or perhaps memorise Hamlet: it is often dangerous, sometimes difficult and always worth it in the end. I directed my first play when I was sixteen — my own adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray — and now, with four plays and, I hope, a slightly expanded theatrical knowledge in hand, I am about to direct one of the most iconic works in the English language — Brideshead Revisited. After more than thirty years, Brideshead is returning to Oxford, its undisputed spiritual home. And I will be sharing the whole experience — all the tears, tantrums and joy, until opening night at the Corpus Auditorium in 7th week — with you. Yes you, dropping your mug of tea in excitement at this scintillating news, and even you, the hardened cynic rolling your eyes at the screen thinking that this is just another play about over-privileged Oxford kids like yourself.
The script is my stage adaptation of the classic novel by an Oxonian literary giant, Evelyn Waugh, and the first draft was written during one mad night of inspiration last term, after a particularly lively formal Hall, which, I assure you, is not an oxymoron. There must have been something in the wine.
Although we begin rehearsals in 1st week, I started working on Brideshead at the beginning of last term by finding a production team and casting. John Frankenheimer, the celebrated American director, maintained that ‘casting is sixty-five percent of directing’ and I don’t think I could disagree. The right actor in the right part only needs guiding rather than directing. Luckily, the idea of Brideshead was so popular that nearly a hundred of Oxford’s best actors came to audition and the final cast of eleven is really quite extraordinary.
After casting was completed, I began the Easter vac by trying to draw up an efficient rehearsal schedule. We all remember those school play rehearsals where you aimlessly waited around for three hours before your ten minutes of glory as Villager 5, or at least I do. Other things to consider were putting together a definitive props list — by which I mean trying to decide how many towers of wax fruit we need — and thinking about the music. Taking a cue from Tennessee Williams, music is going to be an integral part of this production, transferring the emotional intensity from one scene to the next by marrying period music from the 1920s and atmospheric scene change music, which has been specially commissioned for the play. The three protagonists and I also spent an afternoon at the National Theatre costume warehouse in London, hunting for various outré, decadent pieces from the 1920s.
Before rehearsals start, the first real problem for a director is to determine what his direction will actually be, which is slightly more difficult and less obvious than it sounds. Once the production’s ‘center’ is found, every single directorial decision should be based on it. Of course, Brideshead is a play about many things but for me it is essentially a modern tragedy about the death of an idyll. Presenting the play from this angle will involve building up an unbearable sense of tragic futility from the very beginning, as the protagonists strive to satisfy their impossible yearnings. Now that that’s settled, let us begin.