images © Johan Persson.
There’s something innately quite bookish about Dan Brown’s chart-storming mystery thriller Da Vinci Code, mish-mashing as it does an at-times bonkers bricolage of history, religious iconography, conspiracy theory and a hefty dose of riddles and wordplay. Sure, it tiptoes into fairly rote Brown territory of shadowy operations, double-crosses and globetrotting, but it is principally a fairly cerebral affair.
In adapting it for the screen in 2006, the usually-reliable Ron Howard delivered a plodding, pedestrian dredge through Brown’s key points, promising a thriller but actualising something decidedly less, well, thrilling.
All the signs, symbols and icons seemed to point, then, to a steep creative hill to climb when this new stage adaptation of Da Vinci was unveiled. Much more than any of its own brainteasers and anagrammed head scratchers, could director Luke Sheppard and his cast crack the real puzzle; adapting Brown’s novel into something entertaining and satisfying in a different medium and form?
The answer is, for the most part, yes. The core story – following Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Nigel Harman) who becomes embroiled in a labyrinthine mystery of murder, deception and zealotry stretching back to the days of Da Vinci and beyond, and involving the granddaughter (Hannah Rose Caton) of a murdered curator (Andrew Lewis) – remains, for the most part, intact. As pulpy and silly as it can be, it’s still a fun and compelling stage-turner… provided you can comfortably park it squarely in the realm of fiction.
It looks and sounds far better than a stage adaptation strictly needed to, as well. From the ambient soundtrack humming away before the show even begins, performance countdowns announced en Français (opening, as it does, in the Louvre) and a Curious Incident-calibre fusion of light, video and set design making for a routinely atmospheric and visually intriguing box of mysteries.
For some, this could of course be a detriment. Is there missed opportunity in the show blitzing through its core conundrums and puzzles with nary a moment for the audience to have a crack at them themselves? Possibly. And will there be those for whom the fairly breakneck pace and rapid abandonment of one macguffin or painting for the next proves to be a confusing blur? Again, quite possibly.
But the truth is, given the combined gross of both the novel and the subsequent movie, there’s a high chance many in the audience are already familiar with many of the key twists and turns of the story being told. For those who aren’t, giving it such a kinetic and charged treatment makes for an evening of theatre with a rare sense of immediacy and rushed tension (no bad thing). For those who already know the meta narrative at play, the sheer style and vision with which it is executed here will make this revisit one worth taking.
“Harman is an impressive and likeable anchor as Langdon.”
Besides which, it isn’t hard to envisage that theatre production of Code; that plodding, minimalist, terminally boring and dreary kind of fumbling that blighted so much of Howard’s take on the source material.
The show’s spritely sense of energy is mostly well met by the cast, many of whom do good work on multi-role duty. Harman is an impressive and likeable anchor as Langdon, and whilst there are some chuckles littered throughout at his character’s somewhat sheltered, ‘geeky’ ways, they’re consciously fleeting and fairly subtle, so as not to undermine the overall sense of danger and tension. Far more animated, occasionally too much so – though a late observation from Rose Caton’s Sophie perhaps alludes as to why – is Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules, playing eccentric British billionaire and Holy Grail enthusiast Sir Leigh Teabing, who may hold some vital knowledge and answers in the deepening mystery, but feels only a few bumbles and stage scuttles away from panto territory.
Joshua Lacey is suitably intense and an imposing physical presence as the mysterious Silas – he of self-flagellating fame – an assassin and handyman of the shadowy religious cult also seeking answers to the divine mystery, and Hannah Rose Caton holds her own against seasoned stage and screen vets in a pleasantly enjoyable debut.
With its splashes of light, colour and tech wizardry, a game cast and clear drive to keep things moving, Da Vinci Code proves itself on stage as a stylish mystery that’s altogether more distinctive and confident than it has managed to be elsewhere.
It would be a stretch beyond even Langdon and company’s cerebra to call it a ‘masterpiece’, or in any way on par with some of those that cameo throughout, but working off of Brown’s routinely quite silly but nonetheless intriguing page turner, it’s the best, most visually engaging and elegantly executed stage adaptation of the source material you could hope for.
The riddle of adapting Brown for another medium seems, for now, to have been cracked.
Slick, stylish and handsomely executed, whilst it may not be a Louvre-worthy masterpiece, Code is nonetheless a fun, fast-paced and occasionally fascinating adaptation.