When the curtain goes up on this new adaptation of Brideshead Revisited next week, nearly one thousand well oiled, Oxbridge code-breaking minds will judge me. Yes, ‘Ye shall be judged… ye shall be judged’, the words from Luke, 6.3738, echo back at me, like the tolling of a leaden knell. I have taken perhaps one of the most fiercely well-loved novels in the English language and I have transfigured it into just under two hours of theatre. This somewhat disturbing fact has induced me to muse, as the hour draws ever closer, on what actually makes a good adaptation of a novel in the first place.
As I have mentioned before, what I have chosen to bring out in this adaptation is the tragedy of the piece. In order to present Brideshead as a modern tragedy, I have written the play so that the audience is guided through it by Charles, its narrator who – in the manner of the narrator in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie – will constitute the link between the audience and the action and, by sharing with the audience the reflections of his future self, will create an unbearable sense of dramatic and indeed tragic irony. Through the development of this close relationship between the protagonist and the audience, I hope that the audience will be able to take away Charles’ ultimate realisation about the futility of wasting one’s life in search of an idyll that never existed. This ultimate message is not as hopeless as it initially sounds. Charles’ belated arrival at a state of self-knowledge is preferable to never coming to this realisation at all, as is tragically the case with Sebastian.
I believe that the true power of Brideshead lies in its apocalyptic depiction of human interaction, centred on the self-destructive relationships between Charles, Sebastian, Julia and indeed the entire Marchmain family. In order to achieve this absolute focus, I have also reduced the number of superfluous characters that are required to people a novel, but have no place in an intense emotional drama. Although I have retained many of Waugh’s iconic lines from the novel, I was also compelled to write a lot of new material and even some entirely new scenes, the success or failure of which will on whether or not the timbre and register of my lines is identical to Waugh’s. I certainly hope it is.
Ultimately, Brideshead is neither a paean to decadence and velvet smoking jackets, nor a celebration of the age-old Oxonian stereotype. It is simply the tragic and moving story of a man and his search for something to fill the empty void within himself and to alleviate the harshness of reality. Although at first glance, the trailer might suggest otherwise.