On paper, it’s great; on stage, sadly, less so. Edward Hall’s swan song as artistic director of Hampstead Theatre is the world premiere of Howard Brenton’s admirably ambitious, but problematically overloaded response to Jude the Obscure. Where Thomas Hardy, in the original novel, laid bare the barriers to education for his central character, Brenton explores contemporary prejudices and obstacles. Jude becomes Judith, a young Syrian refugee working as a cleaner but nursing a brilliant mind, a passion for ancient Greek and Latin texts and a burning ambition to honour her dead father by studying at Oxford. When her employer, who happens to be a classics teacher, catches her stealing a copy of Euripides, she offers to help.
It’s promising, thoughtful fare with Brenton bringing to it his customary historical and cultural knowledge. He tackles big, far-reaching issues: genius; exile and displacement; the pigeonholing of asylum seekers; the nature and role of education; the collapse of civilisations; the recurring cycles of war. But the play takes on so many subjects at once that it struggles to explore them in any depth or to animate many of its characters convincingly.
One potent idea that Brenton explores is the importance of art in expressing real and experienced agonies. For Judith, who has lived through the horrors of war and the trauma of flight, the ancient texts are not dry pieces of work to be critically analysed, but fresh, vivid and true. She has taught herself ancient Greek; she understands Medea; she converses with Euripides, who pops up from time to time in mask and robe.
But this is all tangled up with multiple other plot lines — including one in which her troubled cousin is a “person of interest” to MI5. And the play flips from critique of an education system mired in confusion about its purpose to exploration of shadowy security services and heavy-handed immigration policies. Juggling all this proves just too much.
Hall’s skilled direction takes in the play’s epic reach, moving swiftly on Ashley Martin-Davis’s versatile set, in which locations are revealed by trapdoors in the floor. And Isabella Nefar is a vibrant, impulsive presence as Judith, brimming with energy and intelligence. Perhaps if we had heard more from just her, the play’s sincere plea to listen to refugees and to history would have come across better. As it is, it misfires.
To June 1, hampsteadtheatre.com
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