As part of this year’s Adelaide Guitar Festival, Adelaide-based Brink Productions will present a world premiere: a play based on The Bridge of San Luis Rey, accompanied by stunning guitar music. First published in 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by American author Thornton Wilder, quickly became a number 1 best seller around the world, and even won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. The novel tells the stories of several interrelated characters who all die in the collapse of an Inca rope bridge in Peru, and tells the events that led up to them being on the bridge.
The director of The Bridge Of San Luis Rey and Brink Productions’ Artistic Director, Chris Drummond, recently spoke with me about the adaptation of Wilder’s novel for the stage and how Brink Productions stands apart from other theatre companies.
“What we’ve done over the last 20 years is really about the collaboration stories. A lot of plays are written by a playwright, more often than not in isolation. They might sometimes workshop their work before the play is delivered, and then a production team is formed to produce it. At Brink, we change the chronology of that. We build a team before the story is written, and we often have a writer that we go into collaborative development with. The way the playwright goes into the creation of the script is influenced by the design, the actors, and the music, and all of the ideas come together as we are trying to get the most theatrical text that we can manage.
“Brink was originally created by seven actors that came out of Flinders University, and collaboration has always been at the heart of the concept of our company. It really gets rid of that hierarchy of the process where the actors are usually the last ones on the team.”
Brink Productions are known for their art of storytelling, and have a long list of successful productions, including several novel adaptations for the stage. What drew the team at Brink to Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey?
“Douglas Gautier, who is the CEO and Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival Centre, gave it to me because he’d seen another book adaptation we had done. It’s a small novel, but it’s a big story with lots of different characters. In the book, the stories are centred around the theatre in Lima and there is this wonderful actress that is a constant character through all the stories. So, we decided, instead of a large cast period drama, what if Paul Capsis plays the actress and embodies all of the characters, telling all of these community stories, but ultimately telling her own? It was really exciting when we came to this decision, especially when we started to think about Peruvian and Spanish music. We invited Slava Grigoryan to provide the music, and Phillip Kavanagh to write the script; he was really the perfect writer. Thornton Wilder was rather young when he wrote the original book, only around 28, so having a younger writer was a good way to go about our creation as well. It all really flowered out of that original idea of what would happen if Paul Capsis told these stories, surrounded by music and Phillip’s writing, and we went from there.”
In Brink Productions’ The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, solo actor Paul Capsis will be joined by Australia’s acclaimed guitarist Slava Grigoryan and one of the UK’s leading classical guitarists, Manus Noble. I asked Chris how he and the creative team worked through the process of bringing the text of Thornton Wilder to the stage with a small cast.
“The first thing is always reducing the amount of raw material you have to work with. We all got together close to four years ago now, and we spent a week where we read the book, finding the bits of the story we thought would work on stage. Slava Grigoryan was finding bits of music, and Paul Capsis was trying different ideas for staging. We then gave Phillip Kavanagh a blueprint to take away and draft the first script. The main challenge was reducing it, but it was music that really helped that process. The music really gives the feel of the place and time and the epic sense of the novel. So, Phillip could, in a few words set against that piece of music, make you feel like you are in a bar in Lima in the 18th Century or a theatre out on the street, and he didn’t need all of the descriptive passages.
“The two guitarists are really embedded into the show; they are not just to the side playing, but Paul acts around them and acts on them as they play. They almost become the characters. There are two brothers that they become in part of the show – they are not actually acting, but their music is so dramatic it develops their characters. Music can create so much drama and depth.
“The music draws on influences from Peruvian and Spanish backgrounds from across the different eras, from early 18th Century right through to some contemporary music, as well as folk, flamenco, and opera. There’s a big palette that they are working with.”
The Bridge Of San Luis Rey will be playing 9 – 24 July in the Space Theatre at the Adelaide Festival Centre. It is presented by Brink Productions, in association with the Adelaide Guitar Festival 2021 and is part of the State Theatre Company’s 2021 Stateside season. Tickets can be purchased through Bass at https://www.adelaideguitarfestival.com.au/events/the-bridge-of-san-luis-rey/ .
Interview by Ben Stefanoff