It’s a shame that for his final production as artistic director of Hampstead Theatre, Edward Hall opted to stage Howard Brenton’s uncomfortable updating of Thomas Hardy’s bleak final novel, Jude the Obscure. Though well-intentioned in its attempts to shine a light on the plight of asylum seekers, it really doesn’t work.
Brenton has turned Jude into Judith, a self-taught Syrian refugee with a passion for Euripides who longs to become a Classics scholar at Oxford. But her dreams are repeatedly derailed as she encounters systemic snobbery and intimidating immigration officials at every turn; smart as she is, she cannot win. When her cousin, who she’s also sleeping with, is accused of radicalism, she ends up tainted by association.
This is quite an interesting set-up, but it’s not handled well. Stereotypes abound and the dialogue is spectacularly clunky – there’s a wearying amount of talk about Greek mythology.
Despite a sparky performance from Isabella Nefar, the character of Judith never coheres. She feels like what she is: an older man’s idea of an intelligent, passionate young woman. It’s impossible to escape this, particularly in the scenes dealing with her sex life and her unseen baby (because, of course, she’s a single mum too).
Hall’s production is visually appealing but theatrically flat. At one point, for reasons that are confusing, Judith ends up with her hands gloved in pig’s blood while standing in a shower of snow – to be fair this is actually quite a striking image, prettily lit by Peter Mumford. The same can’t be said for the wince-inducing scene in which Judith ends up flinging whisky about with Caroline Loncq’s female don, written as a sort of Sapphic Mary Beard figure. Like so much in this production, it feels misjudged and awkward.