Jude at Hampstead Theatre
Loosely based on the novel by Victorian realist author Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, Howard Brenton’s latest play attempts to cover a number of themes while revealing its heroine’s plight, but comes out a rather muddled affair.
The story revolves around Judith Nasrani (Isabella Nefar), a bright young Syrian migrant cleaner turned eventual student, determined to read at Oxford and fulfil her late father’s wish as they migrated to Europe. When her employer, Sally (Emily Taaffe), discovers Judith stole her book by ancient Greek playwright Euripides and can also recite and translate verses on the spot, she is alarmed at the young woman’s brilliance, a far cry from her own assumptions. Sally is so impressed by Judith’s abilities in languages she offers to teach her, though this is short-lived once she herself gets a doctorate position at the university. Similar to Hardy’s novel, Brenton’s play deals with themes of education, religion and morality, and, like the author’s hero, Brenton’s protagonist also fights against the odds to attain a place at Oxford.
Along the way Judith has a relationship with Jack (Luke MacGregor), a pig meat farmer who wants to do things the “old world” way, asking for permission to marry through her Aunt Martha Nesrani (Anna Savva). When Judith arrives in Oxford to sit her A Levels, she stays with her cousin Mark (Merch Hüsey), who is experiencing a theological crises. This is the point Brenton uses to instigate suspicion Mark may be a terror threat. Though contemporary, it is wearying to have such typical plot points; if a character is Arab or looks like a Muslim, can extremism be their only ambition?
The odd non-linear timelines hinder the play, creating a confused story; Judith and Jack have a son – who never appears, making it hard to believe. Euripides does appear, though, actor Paul Brennen wearing a well-crafted mask made by artistic director Edward Hall – the Greek tragedian conjured by Judith. Ashley Martin-Davis’s design is commendable, stage floorboards revealing garden plots and snowy ground, while Nefar gives a good performance as the impassioned student, though the play is let down by its retrograde thinking. Caroline Loncq also imparts a highlight performance, playing the humorous Classics don Deirdre with extravagance, producing more than a few laughs from the audience.
Jude is a fair commentary on migrant issues and social class. Though far from perfect, Brenton’s writing occasionally propels ideas of genius versus notions of morality, national security in modern society and Britain’s attitude towards its migrants and intellectuals.
Photos: Marc Brenner
Jude is at Hampstead Theatre from 26th April until 1st June 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.