Cracking the code: in conversation with The Da Vinci Code’s Luke Sheppard

Coming up with a winning theatrical formula is especially challenging when its development is interrupted by a national lockdown – director Luke Sheppard tells Melissa Blease the story of bringing The Da Vinci Code to the stage.

Above: Luke Sheppard

American author Dan Brown’s 170,000-word 2003 novel saw a Harvard professor of symbology and a police cryptographer trying to solve a murder in the Louvre. They eventually become involved in a battle between a French secret society and the Catholic church over whether or not Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene, and the story gripped the collective public consciousness. Three years later, the film adaptation of Brown’s multi-million selling book – directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou and Ian McKellen – becomes the second highest-grossing film of 2006, only a couple of million dollars behind the arguably much more accessible Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. In 2021, it was announced that the world premiere stage adaptation of The Da Vinci Code was poised to visit the Theatre Royal Bath in May… but not even Dan Brown could have come up with the storyline for the huge, real-life drama that had changed the world then.

“Despite developing The Da Vinci Code for the stage throughout the lockdowns, I always tried to think of the production in 3D,” says director Luke Sheppard, who describes his vision as being “packed with little glimmers of theatrical surprises along the way.” Using these ‘glimmers’ he aims to draw on all the elements that make live theatre so unique to create a sensory experience. “Placing it live in an auditorium with the whole experience around us and the audience in the heart of the action is what I’m most excited about,” he says. “Despite the lockdowns, we managed to bring actors that I really love and admire together, including Nigel Harman as Professor Robert Langdon, Hannah Rose Caton as fellow cryptologist Sophie Neveu and Danny John-Jules as Professor Leigh Teabing. We all kept connected and created as much as we could given the circumstances we were working in during development, and adapted along the way by doing what we’ve always done, as best as we possibly could.”

The production has taken a while to get to the stage, but this means there has been plenty of thinking time, says Luke, who was then in the middle of rehearsals: “It’s great to be in a rehearsal room with all these ideas that we’ve been thinking about both before and over the pandemic – being able to see them in real life is really amazing.
“The pandemic has made everyone really passionate coming back, celebrating the fact that we’re in a live theatrical space and that we can do wondrous things in theatre that we can’t do on screen. It’s wonderful to see actors get inspired by that in the room. And talking to real people in a real room rather than just over a screen.”
After so long under wraps, the theatre industry has needed to refresh its creative contacts, because specialist freelancers were forced to retrain or target the film and TV industry for work during the pandemic.

Above: Nigel Narman as Robert Langdon

“For such a technical show, it’s been a real challenge finding people with the right technical skills – sourcing the right amazing costume makers and set builders and video team and writing technicians,” admits Luke. “But it’s a really exciting piece and there are lots of opportunities for people to create their craft, so when we’ve got the right people they have been positive about joining us because it’s their passion. The show is so full and visual and there is so much for them to get their teeth into.”

Surely developing such a multi-faceted, multi-location, high-octane tale for the stage presented multiple challenges at base level? “We fundamentally approached the story as a brilliant thriller that takes us on an incredible journey,” says Luke, regarding the onerous task of bringing the complex and – in some quarters – controversial cultural phenomenon to the stage. “I saw the film a couple of years ago and I think it’s great in its own right, but I totally adored the book; it ruined a holiday in Greece for me, because I was so absorbed in reading it that I barely left my hotel room! But as brilliant as the story is as a novel, we believe that there’s something about bringing it into a theatre environment that gives it added relevance and its own sense of unique experience that isn’t just an extension of the book or the film, but a creation that stands on its own feet in a very specific way – and that’s the essence of theatre, in its ideal form. And we don’t feel as though we’re in the shadow of the film in any way; we’ve made our own decisions about what to leave in, what we’ve chosen to focus on, and the form in which we choose to tell the story.”

How much influence has Brown himself had on the retelling? “We wanted to make sure that all the people who would be involved with the project were doing it in the right way, so we put all our ideas about how we would take it forward together before we even approached Dan,” says Luke. “Our producer Simon Friend has been really brilliant in developing a trust between us, because of course the story will be told in a very different way on stage; it has to be, for so many reasons. So we wanted to make sure that we’re taking Dan on the journey with us, confident that we’re doing it for the right reasons. We presented him with a document that mapped out our synopsis and all the elements that we’re focusing on and he was really excited by it; he gave us full permission to go full steam ahead, which is really, really exciting.”

Big and bold, visual and theatrically challenging, our production continues to make the case for theatre as an art form

Exciting indeed. And when Luke brings the production to Bath, he’ll be revisiting a snapshot of life on another level, too. “I went to university in Bristol, but I absolutely loved Bath,” he says. “I used to get on the train specifically to go to the Theatre Royal which was renowned for its programming, and its reputation for attracting legendary, leading lights of British theatre. I’m really excited about being there with my own show – I have a feeling it’ll be quite an emotional experience for me, on many levels.”

Emotional for the audience too. In Luke’s words, “Theatre is an incredible space to make and celebrate your craft – there is nothing like live theatre, and coming out of the pandemic The Da Vinci Code is big and bold and visual and theatrically challenging and our production continues to make the case for theatre as an art form.”

The Da Vinci Code: Luke’s cracked it.

The Da Vinci Code, 31 January – 5 February, Theatre Royal Bath;

Featured image: (from left to right) Nigel Harman as Professor Robert Langdon, Hannah Rose Caton as Sophie Neveu, and Danny John Jules as Professor Leigh Teabing.

All photography by Oliver Rosser