Based on the novel by Dan Brown
Adapted by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel
Directed by Luke Sheppard
Priory of Sion. Illuminati. The Holy Grail. Many of us know the tales, the legends, but here’s the thing; there’s always a grain of truth hiding in the myth. A novel for those who dislike novels, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code saw a plethora of Grail hunters, curious minds and conspiracy theorists reaching for the bookshelves with its engaging plot, fast pacing and attentive action sequences and puzzle-solving. And following a rather reputable film adaptation, the stage was (for once) not the natural progression, but nevertheless a welcome one.
The hunt for the Holy Grail has plagued civilisation for centuries – be it for power, glory or even eternal life, but when one studies the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci and the tomes which talk of the Grail, perhaps we’ve been looking in the wrong place. When the curator of the Louvre is violently murdered, he uses his dying moments to leave a series of clues scattered across the museum, and most significantly for the police a request to find symbologist Prof. Robert Langdon.
Detaching themselves from the now noteworthy roles undertaken by Hollywood cherub Tom Hanks and Stage icon Ian McKellen – Nigel Harman and Danny John-Jules offer a take on their respective parts, John-Jules taking mirth in transforming Sir Leigh Teabing into a more eccentric, less dismissive soul. A piece wholly his own, John-Jules takes the character to heart and is less an out and out villain as he is an antagonist, pleased with his defeat at the prospect of the enigma being unravelled. A scholar, more than a criminal.
For Harman, Langford takes a minor backseat to Sophie, the granddaughter of the murdered curator, together with Hannah Rose Caton the pair work to a sense of harmony, representing the original themes well. Issues arise where Harman has less to work with though, a shame given his talent for balancing humour with the intensity of the script. Charming, Caton is a soft presence, engaging and efficient in the role of Sophie and gains a chunk more of the story’s key moments.
Characters who deserve a touch more are the extended role of Collet and the original penance-stricken adversary Silas. Leigh Lothian’s role is a minor, almost non-speaking part of the film, given a sense of agency b director Luke Sheppard and a deciding factor when standing off with Langdon and Sophie. Silas gets the shortest end of the proverbial stick. In the production’s (and stories) most notable areas of commentary on the church’s systemic abuse, Silas is watered down significantly, and no longer a sympathetic character following the teachings of a mad man and manipulator but rather a toned down petulant follower.
David Woodhead’s set design is exceptional – and well worth the price of admission to witness as it unfolds, contorts and seamlessly transitions from the warm streets of Paris, the London Underground and finally to the majesty of Rosslyn Chapel. Much of the storytelling is visual, and together with Lizzie Powell’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s video design, The Da Vinci Code excels itself as a spectacle piece, with paintings flying in and out of the rafters of the Louvre and sudden tonal shifts as Silas emerges from the shadows.
But it isn’t enough. Urgency becomes non-existent, and characters who spend their lives hunting for the grail become only mildly perturbed once their dreams are crushed. And those familiar with the grand reveal and finale of the story will be left perplexed at the rush in which the revelations are unveiled – almost a second thought. Wagstaff & Abel’s adaptation does indeed place Sophie at the front and centre of the plot ripples, a welcome manoeuvre, but it drains the agency from Langdon. Suddenly he seems almost intrusive in Sophie’s story, a figurehead here out of exposition rather than necessity.
Indeed, the vast majority of the sense of dread and worldbuilding occurs thanks to Ben & Max Ringham’s composition – making for a marvellous soundtrack. Unlike so many other adaptations, Wagstaff and Abel can afford an additional fifteen-to-twenty-minute runtime on either side of the acts. A nearly unheard-of complaint where the production is too short – it pushes exposition through the lips of characters, rather than a natural divulgence of the narrative.
Strikingly efficient, The Da Vinci Code’s transition to the stage is marred by producer’s fears of exposition and pacing. Clocking in at under two hours (with interval), many may leave the theatre with a puzzle of their own to solve – what went wrong. The pieces are in place, aligned with talent and skill to present a terrific stage adaptation. Time is the ultimate currency, and audiences will undoubtedly feel short-changed by this production’s flurry of explanation and plot desertion.
The Da Vinci Code is a bloody decent tackle of the source material, but the ambitions onstage do not reflect the required ambition of the writing and pacing. There exists tremendous potential for this to become a sensationalist piece of adrenaline-fuelled storytelling. The key aspect of Brown’s novel was always the story, the mystery and semiotic unravelling – something Wagstaff and Abel miss the clues on it would appear.
The Da Vinci Code runs until April 9th at The King’s Theatre. Tickets for which can be obtained here.
Photo Credit – Johan Persson