Review: Jude, Hampstead Theatre

Paul Brennen as Euripedes and Isabella Nefar as Jude picture credit Marc Brenner

Paul Brennen as Euripedes and Isabella Nefar as Jude picture credit Marc Brenner - Credit: Archant

Tonally uneven reworking of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure has flashes of sharp wit and an intense central performance but Ed Hall’s final production at Hampstead is below par

Howard Brenton's reworking of Hardy's Jude The Obscure was supposed to continue his fruitful Hampstead Theatre collaboration with director Howard Davies, which brought us 55 Days, and Drawing the Line.

But Davies' death in 2016 meant the baton passed to Ed Hall, who directs his final production of a generally successful nine-year stint as Artistic Director.

It's a shame because this tale of an autodidact Syrian refugee who dreams of studying classics at Oxford, typifies the more middling Hampstead fare of Hall's tenure, marrying high art themes with well meaning liberalism with mixed success. While there are flashes of sharp wit and an intense central performance by Isabella Nefar, it's an ambiguous tragi-comedy loaded with windy speeches about language and Greek literature that are in danger of only landing with the very Oxbridge elite who are called to task here.

The opener between Emily Taaffe's classics academic Sally and Nefar's abrasive Judith exudes an irritating hand-wringing leftyism - Sally makes the kind of gaffes that a stupid white Brit would make about her light-fingered Syrian cleaner, and remains unsympathetic and unconvincing throughout. Better is Caroline Loncq's salty whisky-swilling Don (reminscient of Mary Beard) who rails against political correctness and snowflake students, and warms to Judith's rich potential.

Also memorable is Luke Macgregor's pig farmer, who inarticulately articulates so much about Brexit Britain as he falls for a woman with questionable immigration status.

The scene where an unhinged Jude conflates her father's death during their trek through Europe with a pig's slaughter has unsettling overtones of Stephen King's Carrie.

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And Paul Brennan relishes the dry wit of a ghostly Euripides, who appears to the increasingly marginalised Judith.

But a strand about surveillance culture and a pair of cartoonishly menacing spooks who scupper Jude's dreams because of her religiously confused cousin, feels tonally off-key.

Brenton's dig at paperthin liberal tolerance sees Judith's talents thwarted as Britain and its institutions close ranks to protect themselves from a difficult outsider.

But the Cambridge educated playwright can't seem to decide whether he's for the ivory tower pursuit of knowledge or against its elitism.