JULIET Forster remembers seeing the 1995 film of Angels & Insects “which largely seemed to involve a young Patsy Kensit taking her clothes off at the drop of a hat”.

She is not alone in that memory, but cast it aside. You won’t find any of that clothes-shedding in writer-director Forster’s still sensuous new production for York Theatre Royal and actor Jonathan Race’s company Useful Donkey.

This is the first stage adaptation of the 1992 novella Morpho Eugenia by Sheffield novelist AS Byatt – a former pupil of The Mount in York, incidentally – and it is far more true to the spirit of the book.

Forster, the Theatre Royal’s associate director, admits to having “found myself regularly wrestling with Byatt’s wonderful wordy style”, one where “she often uses ten words where one would do”.

Forster acknowledges that such a technique “works brilliantly in a novel but can be a bit cumbersome on stage”, and while she knew she was going to find it very hard to be ruthless in cutting Byatt’s work, she has managed to do so.

Forster has created a two-hander that runs for an unbroken 105 minutes and yes, there is still a multitude of words, but it is a mellifluous multitude for a multi-layered story, and Forster, cast and audience alike can savour Byatt’s turn of phrase.

What’s more, mood and tone is set as much by the cello music of Bach, Vivaldi, Verdi, Schumann, Beethoven and Saint-Saens, performed by actress Joanna Hickman in the beautifully enunciated role of Matty Crompton, she of the “beautiful wrists” (so suited to cello-playing!).

The cello is effectively one of two narrators: the other being Jonathan Race, such a wonderfully chameleon actor, who follows up his villainous Sheriff Hutton in Robin Hood And His Merry Mam by playing the very serious Amazonian explorer and entomologist William Adamson.

Adamson, the Nottinghamshire naturalist, returns home shipwrecked and penniless to be taken in by the wealthy, aristocratic Alabaster family and is immediately drawn to his benefactor’s beautiful daughter, Eugenia. Yet this is a family of grim, dark Victorian secrets and Forster’s production plays it out as a detective story, where parallels are drawn between the insect kingdom and human behaviour at the time of Darwin’s Origin Of The Species theories.

Like a butterfly, the full picture is concealed until the wings open, and that opening is gradual and tantalising and intriguing the more Matty comes into the story. Byatt’s language is similarly revelatory.

Designer Anna Gooch creates a Studio stage that evokes the study of insects with images of assorted creepy crawlies and butterfly boxes, complemented by a bookcase that doubles as ship’s sail and a gauze backdrop that lights up with twinkling stars to suggest a vast world beyond.

Not only the language draws you in with its mystery and movement between naturalism and fantasy, so too does Forster’s use of magic and illusion, courtesy of illusion consultant Darren Long, to conjure butterflies in flight.

This is quietly considered, quietly tempestuous, quietly intelligent theatre that rewards patience, like catching a butterfly.

Angels & Insects, York Theatre Royal and Useful Donkey, York Theatre Royal Studio, until May 4. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk