Hampstead Theatre (venue)
06 May 2019 (released)
10 May 2019
Howard Brenton’s new play is a twisty tale of a Syrian refugee in the UK, based on Thomas Hardy’s novel, Jude the Obscure. As Brenton said of play-writes, we are ‘jazz-playing Jackdaws’ and you can’t help but admire its wide- ranging ambition as themes and worlds intersect. Edward Hall directs the last show of his ten year tenure as artistic director at the Hampstead Theatre which has included five of Brenton’s plays and has seen a dramatic growth in audiences.
Thomas Hardy’s Jude is a working class, west country boy who dreams of studying at the university in Christminster, whilst Brenton’s Judith (Jude) is a Syrian refugee who dreams of getting into Oxford University to study classics. Through force of personality and linguistic genius, her ambition is almost within reach. To add to the mix, Judith meets Euripides (in a Greek mask naturally), has a baby with west country Jack who’s very nice but trades and slaughters stolen pigs, before moving on to sleep with her Syrian cousin, Mark who’s being watched by MI5 under suspicion of extremism. There’s a lot of ground to cover.
Isabella Nefar (Judith), breaths life into what can feel like quite a monologue heavy first half. Her vibrancy is close to fragility and she makes a convincing candidate for total breakdown, having so much ambition, a history of trauma and no personal boundaries. But the characters around her are more thinly drawn, the relationships between them lightly traced. Caroline Loncq’s performance as Deidre brings welcome humour and warmth but the whisky drinking, outspoken feminist Don feels more like seventies cliché than a contemporary figure.
Brenton’s story of the wild genius at odds with society is a sort of Euripidean tragedy that has travelled via Hardy’s Wessex before being re-imagined in the supposedly contemporary concerns of a Syrian refugee. But as our protagonist heads to the hallowed halls of classical academic studies in Oxford, a world stuck in its own time-warp it feels far from contemporary, not to mention her tendency to heads even further back in time to chat with Euripides when she’s had a few drinks. Maybe that’s why the plot takes another twist into the distinctly contemporary concerns of an MI5’s terrorist investigation. Whilst the sheer number of worlds, themes, and references ensures the play is never dull, the many elements sometimes feel forced together, and struggle to take root on the bare stage.