I'm very conscious that to revive a play is not to have a throwback to something nostalgic – it is to discover what is immediate about it.”

When Peter Nichols’ black comedy Passion Play was first produced 30 years ago, it was staged in a contemporary setting, pre-mobile phones and modern technology.

But rather than turn it into a period piece, director David Leveaux has worked with designer Hildegard Bechtler to create a very different staging for the story of infidelity, alter egos and, as the title suggests, intense passion.

It is coming to Brighton for a week of previews ahead of a West End run at London’s Duke Of York’s Theatre.

“We have pushed it quite a lot further,” says Leveaux during a break in rehearsals.

“Looking at it now, it feels much more like a psychological interior landscape.”

The pair stripped all the “security and safety of a literal world” to set the whole play in a light box with a red sofa.

“We started with the red sofa, and then realised a great deal, particularly the destinations of the scenes, were liberated with an inner energy by virtue of it being done this way.

“Every moment on the stage has to be alive through the characters – there are no points where they can stomp off or pause for a scene change.

“It’s not just high concept for the sake of it – what we are doing with the space and the production is strip the play down to its essential animal gestures and it seems to develop more and more power as we go.

“The job of any kind of theatre is to keep people on the edge of their seats for as long as possible.”

Passion Play is the story of happily married couple, Eleanor and James, whose world is turned upside down when James starts an affair with their young friend Kate. As lies mount up, the marriage is stripped bare and hidden passions are revealed.

The innovative staging helps with the most challenging aspect of the play – the two central characters’ alter egos who say the words and think the thoughts the couple can’t share in public.

Heading up the cast is Zoë Wanamaker as Eleanor – who Leveaux directed in her 1998 Olivier-winning title role in Sophocles’ Electra – with Samantha Bond playing her alter ego Nellie.

Opposite Wanamaker is Owen Teale as her husband of 25 years and Oliver Cotton as his alter ego Jim. Rounding out the cast is Annabel Scholey as Kate, and Sian Thomas as Agnes.

“It actually took us 12 months to pull this company together,” says Leveaux.

“It’s an unusually long time. Although it is an ensemble piece we have six characters, which we have cut down from Nichols’s eight or ten.

“It’s fantastic working with Zoë again – I don’t know why it has taken so long to do it.

“She’s a devastatingly gifted actor – it is great to be back in the room with her.”

Leveaux set aside a four-week rehearsal period to tackle the play.

“This is a very tricky play, both technically and what it is asking of the actors,” he says.

“I knew we weren’t going to be able to rush it and so it has proved. It throws up all kinds of questions in a contemporary production, so we needed every minute that God has given us!”

Part of it is down to Nichols’s structure of the play – with jumps in reality that Leveaux describes as almost dream-like.

“It feels like you’re being let into the landscape of somebody’s mind rather than the real outside world,” says Leveaux. “It’s very exciting to watch.

“It is called Passion Play, not Infidelities, because it is about the passionate conflicts between people. They might be ripping each other’s hearts out right in front of you, but it is also a great comedy.

“The play deals with the immense cost of adultery and the argument is really about whether love exists or not.

“Nichols doesn’t always write sympathetic characters – he has a beautiful ruthless manner where people say terrible things to each other. People may have thought them but would never say them out loud.

“Part of the beauty of the play is it doesn’t pull its punches by making it sentimental.”

Leveaux believes it is time the theatre-going public came to Nichols with fresh eyes especially following the recent West End hit Privates On Parade and A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg.

“He will make a perfectly laid table, and then tip it over,” says Leveaux.

“The intention is to make us more aware of that perfectly laid table and not take it for granted.

“He has a surprising and ruthless way of writing – he’s unafraid of breaking through the softer veil of familiarity to get to a much more shocking and turbulent truth. It makes him immensely theatrical.”

  • Passion Play is at Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, from Tuesday, April 23, to Saturday, April 27. Starts 7.45pm, 2.30pm matinees on Thurs and Sat, tickets from £15. Call 0844 8717650