“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning.”

These final lines from American author Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey are an eloquent summation of the messy business of life and loss and what it means to be human. Former UK prime minister Tony Blair considered the text so powerful he quoted it in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Twenty years later, the Pulitzer Prize-winning story about the inter-related lives of five people killed by the collapse of an Incan rope bridge in Peru might now be considered an allegory for our times, says Chris Drummond, artistic director of Adelaide-based Brink Productions.

“When September 11 happened, Tony Blair recited the last lines of the novel in a church service for the British people who had died, talking about an event that is so unexpected and so cataclysmic it can break us all apart as a society,” explains Drummond.

“And I think in a way, right now with COVID, we’d just been going along all living our lives and then one event in a really profound way showed that, you know what, we are all interconnected…

“I think that’s what this book is about; it’s reminding us that because life can turn on a dime, that thing that makes us survive as individuals or as a community or a species is actually a sense of compassion for one another, or love, and that works at an intimate level and at a vast level.”

Drummond admits these can be difficult ideas to talk about without sounding “hokey”, but Brink Productions’ adaptation of The Bridge of San Luis Rey ­– to be performed by Paul Capsis with guitarists Slava Grigoryan and Manus Noble as part of the Adelaide Guitar Festival program – promises all the ingredients for an intoxicating night at the theatre.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is an incredible fusion of worlds colliding ­– exotic characters, sweeping sagas, conspiracy, outrage and passion; it’s all wickedly transgressive, hysterically funny and deeply moving with its profound insight into the nature of humanity, mortality and love,” he says.

Director Chris Drummond (standing) with Slava Grigoryan and Paul Capsis in rehearsals for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Photo: Chris Herzfeld

The production was actually in the works well before the pandemic began, with the shutdown of live performance forcing its season to be postponed from July 2020 until July 2021. It had its genesis in 2015, when Adelaide Festival Centre CEO and artistic director Douglas Gautier approached Drummond to see if he thought Wilder’s novel would be suitable for adaptation for the stage.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey isn’t a large book – just 235 pages, in fact – but the tale it weaves is a complex one. It is set in a “mystical and imagined” Peru of the 18th century and told through the eyes of a Franciscan monk who witnesses the collapse of the rope bridge and sets out to find out all he can about the lives of the five victims to determine if the tragedy is evidence of God’s hand.

Previous stage productions overseas have mainly been period pieces presented with large casts, but as director, Drummond decided early on to pare it back, ditch the monk, and instead tell the story through the single character of the formidable and charismatic actress Camila Perichole. Rather than approaching the saga from a theological point of view, he sees it as being about the fragility of life.

“These stories [within The Bridge of San Luis Rey] are all centred around the theatre… and there’s this great actress that threads through these and the last story is really her own story about the death of her great mentor and her son. Right there in that conversation with Douglas I said, ‘You know, I’d get the actress to tell the whole story rather than going epic with a large cast, so you have one performer telling this universal story’.”

He also immediately thought the role of Camila Perichole would be perfect for Paul Capsis, an actor and cabaret star who is known as a chameleon and has successfully embodied a number of female characters throughout his career.

The music helps it feel like there’s a novelistic sweep to the whole thing

In Wilder’s book, readers learn how “the Perichole” started out her life as a peasant girl singing in Lima and was taken under the wing of the Svengali-like Uncle Pio, who mentored her to become the greatest actress of her generation. She abandons her career when she becomes mistress to the Viceroy and has several children with him, but encounters Pio again later after she is left scarred by smallpox. He convinces her to let him teach her young son Jaime, but both Pio and the boy are among those who die in the bridge collapse.

In Brink’s version, adapted for the stage by SA playwright Phillip Kavanagh, Capsis’s Perichole also embodies all the other characters and ideas in the novel.

“Phil Kavanagh has done an absolutely brilliant job – I think all the stories are really compellingly told and very funny, often, but you still get the whole scope,” Drummond says. “And the music helps it feel like there’s a novelistic sweep to the whole thing; it gives a sense of place and time.”

Paul Capsis, centre, in rehearsals with Manus Noble and Slava Grigoryan. Photo: Chris Herzfeld

It was Gautier who suggested bringing classical guitarist (and Guitar Festival artistic director) Slava Grigoryan on board. He and Irish guitarist Manus Noble play throughout the show, helping transport audiences to the 18th-century Peruvian setting with Latin American music spanning genres from classical and folk to contemporary; Capsis also sings several songs in the show, including Ute Lemper’s “Oblivion”.

“It’s so beautiful and it helps the drama,” Drummond says of the score. “The build-up towards the collapse of the bridge at the end is really thrilling theatrically and that’s in large part because of the way the music gets you on the edge of your seat.”

The set, designed by Jonathon Oxlade, is described as a “magical deconstructed 18th-century world”. In hues of blue, it features a circular wooden stage with curtains that open to reveal different images through the archway beyond to place audiences in a kind of 3D world.

While The Bridge of San Luis Rey retains its 18th-century setting, the creatives have tried to ensure it is not a “period piece”.

“It’s a really contemporary bit of performance-making,” Drummond says.

“The way Paul plays off an audience as a cabaret performer is really raw and present, and then Jonathon Oxlade’s aesthetic always has a contemporary quality to it. So it’s quite a unique balance of a feeling of period but also a feeling that it’s a big act of make-believe that’s happening right in front of us with these little nods of the contemporary moment flickered here and there throughout the show.

“It’s got lots of different tones, from really broad comedic stuff to really poignant beautiful lyrical writing and almost broad farce and then in some ways, for a one-hander, quite realistic dramatic scenes, so it’s constantly changing tone in all sorts of beautiful ways.”

Brink Productions will present The Bridge of San Luis Rey at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Space Theatre from July 9-24. It was co-commissioned by the Festival Centre’s Adelaide Guitar Festival for its 2021 program – which opens this week – and is part of the State Theatre Company’s 2021 Stateside season.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.