A gowned diva and two guitarists enter a bare theatre. The bravura opening scene establishes that we are in 18th century Peru and promises much. Passion bubbles beneath the surface. A handkerchief becomes a mantilla then a nursing shawl as a background silhouette tantalises.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Paul Capsis, Manus Noble, and Slava Grigoryan. Photo © Chris Herzfeld.

Director Chris Drummond takes us on a musical and theatrical journey all the way over a precipice, aided by Designer Jonathan Oxlade’s simple theatre set and Gavin Norris’ crisp and atmospheric lighting.

Paul Capsis as the Perichole inhabits a role that could have been written by Wilder just for him. The complexities of the relationships between the characters and the different accents utilised, provide something of a challenge for us as we struggle at times to see the end of one and beginning of another. The scenes where Capsis does not read from the notebook are captivating and reveal every brilliant thing about the consummate performer, but when in use, the narrator’s diary keeps us continuously at a distance; the prop frequently coming between us, and the characters we meet. 

There’s no escaping that The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a book about a character who launches an investigation into the will of God. This theatrical version is an altogether different proposition. Script adaptor Phillip Kavanagh has provided us with a secular narrator whose outlook is perhaps more introspective. The existential aspects of the original text are not fully explored, but the theatre-within-a-theatre is not lost on those wanting to look past the expertise of the performers. Sections of the original text are scripted verbatim, mixed with modern day vernacular that at times makes the work, set in 1714, feel confused. The out of context point making hurts the magnificent story. 

Slava Grigoryan and Manus Noble perform with brilliance. The musicianship of the guitar duo is outstanding and they seamlessly, and without sheet music, underpin the storytelling throughout. Standout moments include Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Asturias (Leyenda) from Isaac Albéniz’s Suite española, Op. 47.

The decision to try and inject humour into this story – one attempting to examine issues of existentialism, connectivity and fate – comes at the expense of dramatic tension. Just as we are about to experience five people falling to their deaths, a boozy brunette Sia belts out Chandelier. We start having our own existential crisis, likely caused by the incorrect expectation that this would be a more traditional production.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is running at the Adelaide Festival Centre 9 JUL — 24 JUL 2021.