Monday, 13 May 2019

Theatre review: Jude

Edward Hall is stepping down as Artistic Director of Hampstead Theatre, and on paper a new Howard Brenton play seems a fitting swansong to his time there - after all Brenton is a big-name playwright who's had numerous premieres at the theatre during Hall's tenure. But where in recent years he's been best known as a writer of engrossing history plays, his latest is a loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure that, while always watchable, makes for a very, very odd choice of victory lap for Hall. Jude throws together the huge politics of asylum seekers with the more intimate politics of academia, all of it haunted - literally - by the classics. Teenager Judith (Isabella Nefar) is a Christian Syrian refugee in Hampshire, taking a job as a cleaner for graduate student Sally (Emily Taafe) and nearly getting fired on her first day when she steals a volume of Euripides in the original Ancient Greek.

Instead, Sally decides to tutor the school dropout when she accurately translates the verse - Judith has a natural affinity with languages that saved her life when she was travelling across Europe to safety.

Not that she's necessarily out of the woods in the UK; her actual age seems to be clouded in mystery because if she's over 18 she has to apply for her Leave to Remain, which is far from guaranteed. Especially when she moves in with (and starts sleeping with) her cousin Mark (Merch Hüsey,) whose lifelong fascination with various religions picks the worst possible time for him to get into radical Islam. In scenes that flash-forward four years, two MI5 agents (Shanaya Rafaat and Paul Brennen) are hunting Judith down.

The fact that the above summary doesn't even touch on Judith's attempts to get into Oxford University (at... some point between meeting Sally and being chased by MI5, honestly chronology is not the play's strong suit) says a lot about how wide Brenton extends the play's reach. Randy bisexual classics professor* Deirdre (Caroline Loncq) is as excited about the diversity boxes Judith would tick if they gave her a place as she is about nurturing her natural talent, but questions about who education is for are as underexplored as Judith's history in a play that never seems to know where it wants to focus next.

Some of the tonal differences are deliberate, Brenton juxtaposing the ritual of the classics with the banality of real life - like Judith baptising herself in blood, to the annoyance of her butcher boyfriend (Luke MacGregor) who wanted to use it for black pudding. But then there's also great lurches in tone that take the story from melodrama to tragedy via slapstick. I can't say Jude doesn't provide food for thought, but whether it's actually coherent thought is another matter. Whether Brenton could have done with a couple more drafts of the script or it's Hall who hasn't harnessed an intentional surrealism, I really couldn't say. But the play does feature Judith having regular conversations with the ghost of Euripides. Who turns out to have been from Lancashire.

Jude by Howard Brenton, based on Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, is booking until the 1st of June at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hour 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

*which feels like it must be an established trope, or at least should be

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