Can theatre crack The Da Vinci Code?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Nigel Harman as Robert Langdon in the stage version of The Da Vinci Code - Feast Creative
Nigel Harman as Robert Langdon in the stage version of The Da Vinci Code - Feast Creative

The curtain is poised to rise on The Da Vinci Code in the first big theatrical event of 2022; in fact, the year may yield no more newsworthy stage premiere.

Amid the soaring successes of the 21st century’s bestsellers, Dan Brown’s 2003 thriller looms as large and opulent as St Peter’s Basilica, albeit it’s not subject to as much aesthetic devotion. It was, notoriously, once denounced by Salman Rushdie as “a novel so bad it gives bad novels a bad name”. And yet it has sold 80 million copies, and spawned a film, starring Tom Hanks, which has grossed more than $750 million worldwide.

It remains a publishing phenomenon, its clout bound up with its controversial subject matter. At the heart of its twisty, code-cracking narrative of physical pursuit and intellectual quest lies a scandalising conspiracy theory: that the early church might have suppressed evidence, hinted at in the paintings of Leonardo, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, begetting a bloodline that surfaced in France’s Merovingian dynasty. In other words, you could infer that at the root of Christianity lies a buried secret.

Debunking dismissals of that thesis emerged – especially the authoritative pooh-poohing of the Priory of Sion, a pivotal element in the book, as a genuine centuries-old secret society. All the same, the embattled American author maintained he had done his research and asserted that there was scope for interpretation.

The indignation of some reached fever, or fervour, pitch with the release of the 2006 film, starring Hanks as the sleuthing American symbologist Robert Langdon and Audrey Tautou as the quick-witted French cryptologist Sophie Neveu, the murder of whose grandfather in the Louvre begins the tale.

Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou star in the 2006 film adaptation - Alamy
Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou star in the 2006 film adaptation - Alamy

There were instances of protests and boycotts in countries across Asia. Closer to home, on the steps of Lincoln Cathedral – used to shoot a scene in Westminster Abbey – a nun knelt in prayer for 12 hours in a vigil of dismay.

Might a fresh round of upset ensue with the unveiling of the world premiere stage adaptation? It may sound unlikely that placards would be brandished in Bromley, south-east London, the launch pad for the show’s 11-month tour. But if that did happen, it would confirm that the tackling of religious subjects in an unorthodox fashion, on stage or screen, retains the power to shock people.

Notably, in 1969, Mary Whitehouse denounced Dennis Potter for committing blasphemy with his TV play Son of Man, which portrayed Christ as a self-doubting figure and didn’t depict the resurrection. Protests beset a nationwide tour of Jerry Springer – The Opera in 2006: there was particular anger at Christ being presented as a barely clad participant in a hellish incarnation of the Jerry Springer talk show, squaring up to Satan (“Talk to the stigmata!”). The year before, the National was also inundated with letters about Howard Brenton’s play Paul, in which Christ survived crucifixion and engineered Saul’s Damascene conversion.

By virtue of theatre’s immediacy, when The Da Vinci Code hits the stage, it will encounter the front line of public opinion. If the production, directed by the rising star Luke Sheppard and starring ex-EastEnders actor Nigel Harman as Langdon, is done well, it will stir reaction, debate – and protest too?

“We have considered the possibility that there might be protests,” admits Rachel Wagstaff, who has collaborated with Duncan Abel on the script, consulting along the way with “a generously supportive” Brown via email. The pair enjoyed commercial success adapting another bestseller, The Girl on the Train, in 2018, and before that Wagstaff reaped critical adulation too with her transposition of Sebastian Faulks’s First World War novel Birdsong. She’s a dedicated and seasoned adapter but realises this is a different order of event.

Protests in Mumbai about the release of the film of The Da Vinci Code - Hindustan Times via Getty
Protests in Mumbai about the release of the film of The Da Vinci Code - Hindustan Times via Getty

“It’s intimidating taking on something that’s so popular and something that has been so attacked,” she says. They’re striving to serve the storyline and its suppositions with as much sensitivity as possible. “We’re not shying away from the controversy. Some people will be outraged. But we don’t want to make anyone think what they believe in isn’t valid. What’s interesting is seeing whether any faith stands up when you start questioning the facts.”

Abel admits that both he and Wagstaff became more “intrigued” by the Mary Magdalene thesis the more they read. “But we’re not coming down on either side,” he says. “We leave it for the audience to decide. Brown brilliantly explores a hypothesis. Some might dismiss the idea that Jesus had a bloodline as poppycock, just as others would dismiss the notion that he was the son of God. It’s an open discussion.”

Aside from the tricky process of condensing the material, bringing the book to the stage has enabled striking points of departure from the original. “We decided against prioritising physical character descriptions,” Abel says. That means the murderous monk Silas is no longer specified as an albino. “And where some [secondary] characters in the novel are male, we’ve taken another route.”

The most dramatic difference is the absence of Brown’s narratorial voice. This removes the most derided element of his blockbuster. His prose was described by one linguist as “almost ingeniously bad”.

Author of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown - Getty
Author of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown - Getty

Passionate about, and protective of, the book, Wagstaff maintains that she never winced at the writing and detects snobbery and envy in the many swipes at it. “I was doing a masters in literature and drama when it came out. I’m not an idiot, and I loved it. Millions of other people have too.” She and Abel have transferred some of the information and exposition with which the pages teem into the characters’ mouths to make the dialogue as intellectually animated as possible.

The upshot may be that those who hated the work’s style could be tempted to join the fans out of curiosity to see its substance realised under the spotlight. Is it conceivable that the play might prove better than the original?

“I hope they’re commensurable,” Wagstaff replies. The holy grail (no pun intended) with stage adaptations is something that stands on its own merits. The creative team express particular admiration for the National’s award-winning version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Far from being a dutiful page-to-stage affair, video artistry and highly physical ensemble storytelling will feature here too, with the “codes” the protagonists are trying to crack, and various artwork, projected on to gauze to make it seem like they are hanging in the air, and actors creating a mood of religious ritual using chanting and music.

It’s certainly true that, in the wake of the pandemic, British theatres desperately need accessible, mainstream shows if they want to woo back audiences. Po-faced lectures about social justice simply won’t cut it. Furthermore, while new plays seem increasingly hamstrung by the censorious culture on social media, The Da Vinci Code may prove that intelligent, daring adaptations are a godsend right now, in terms of enabling provocative material to reach the stage.

Wagstaff agrees. “There’s a real nervousness in the theatre world at the moment. It’s cautious about what can and can’t be said. I think it would be tragic if it lost its ability to explore sensitive and controversial subjects. It should be a forum for all ideas.”

The Da Vinci Code tour begins at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, on January 10 and runs until November 12. Tickets: davincicodeonstage.com

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting