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Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage, London until June 1
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Edward Hall's final production as Artistic Director of the Hampstead Theatre is the latest from the acclaimed playwright Howard Brenton. Inspired by Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, although much more indebted to Greek drama, this is a very modern tale about finding genius in the most unusual of places. It also explores our inability as a society to accommodate the supremely gifted, in an age where nurture is considered to always trump nature.
About to be fired from her cleaning job for stealing a volume of Euripides, young Syrian refugee Judith (Isabella Nefar) turns her employer's outrage to shock by translating the ancient Greek text on the spot. The employer Sally (Emily Taaffe), a Classics teacher, knows great talent when she sees it and the encounter ignites Jude's ambition to study at Oxford University. Entirely self-taught and possessing an astonishing gift for languages, she will stop at nothing to achieve her dream but she remains oblivious to the hidden barriers that her background and situation have put in her path.
While Hardy's Jude was also a classical scholar, Brenton says in a programme note that it seemed natural that Euripides would be the favorite author of this teenage refugee. Really? Today's geniuses are more likely to be computer programmers hooked on Game of Thrones and one gets the a sense that by making her a classicist he's indulging his personal desires rather than fleshing out a realistic modern protagonist. Nefar struggles with an unsympathetic character that is often merely a vessel for Brenton's ideas and her efforts are not helped by dialogue which just doesn't ring true for modern teenagers, even gifted ones.
The supporting cast fare better with Luke MacGregor bringing the right earthy swagger to the part of her ordinary-Joe boyfriend. He's a butcher and part time pig rustler and just wants them to settle down. She has a son with him whom she later deserts.
Caroline Loncq, too, is wittily imperious as Deirdre, an eminent Classics Professor, whom Jude initially bowls over with the sheer force of her intellect. Brenton enjoys making digs at modern universities and their diversity obsessions. Deirdre tries behind the scenes to secure a scholarship for Jude and she quips "I can hear the boxes ticking themselves".
She is of course eventually let down by the bureaucracy and the forces of the state. Lodging with her troubled cousin Mark (Merch Hüsey) sows the seeds of her destruction, as he becomes radicalized and soon comes to the attention of MI5. Brenton, ever the misty-eyed revolutionary, makes a case here, although never convincingly, that there's a "deep state" which, when politically required to do so, eats up and spits out any vulnerable folk who get in its way. In a final confrontation with Judith, Sally pleads with her that while you can admire those taking extreme positions in Euripides, it's not that simple in real life. It falls on deaf ears.
Hall's direction employs some of the devices of Greek drama such as the appearance of the masked figure of Euripides himself, who counsels Jude. There are also references to Hardy's novel when Jude dramatically washes herself in pigs' blood. This grand poetic gesture doesn't impress boyfriend Jack though and he complains "That blood is for black puddings".
Brenton's play, while sympathetic to the plight of Jude and her kind, is a curiously old fashioned affair layered with English refinement and replete with liberal guilt. While it bursts with ideas it has probably bitten off more than it can chew here.
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