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The Theatreguide.London Review

Jude
Hampstead Theatre   Spring 2019

Edward Hall ends his admirable tenure as Artistic Director of the Hampstead Theatre by producing and directing a new play by Howard Brenton, but neither play nor production are the triumphant farewell for which he might have wished.

Brenton's drama is inspired in part by Thomas Hardy's Jude The Obscure, about a self-taught man's hunger for higher education.

But it also wants to say things about the plight of modern refugees, academic politics, Greek literature, Islamophobia, the economic downturn, Britain as a police state and the effect of American pork production on British pig farmers.

And gardening. And religious confusion. And sex. And I'm not sure that's all.

Judith is an illegal Syrian immigrant teenager, a brilliant and driven autodidact who uses pilfered books to teach herself Latin and classical Greek so that she can sight-translate Homer.

Her dream is to get into Oxford, a possibility that seems remote until a chance encounter with a female don who is as intrigued by the diversity boxes a Syrian unwed mother non-public-school student would check, and by the girl's attractiveness, as by her academic potential.

But – and I will not apologise for this spoiler – the deus-ex-machina intervention of British security forces (who are actually investigating a cousin of Judith's who is, incidentally, totally innocent) scares Oxford off.

At this point Howard Brenton's narrative, which has been somewhat iffy all along, with big gaps and flashbacks within flashforwards, becomes completely incoherent. I watched the last two minutes of the play with care, but can not tell you what happened or what it meant.

Along the way the playwright not only keeps getting sidetracked by one or another of the play's secondary interests, but seems from scene to scene to have forgotten what he said before.

The god of Judith's idolatry shifts from Homer to Euripides and back, the dream figure she has imaginary conversations with is sometimes her father and sometimes Euripides, and the play repeatedly invokes Medea in an ominous foreshadowing that turns out to be a total red herring (I think – as I said, the ending is very opaque).

Isabella Nefar captures Judith's attractive passion for learning but never for a second seems a teenager. Caroline Loncq as the don and Shanaya Rafaat as the cop offer generic stock characterisations. They and the other cast members, whose performances range from wooden to confused, all seem desperately in search of a director.

In a programme note Edward Hall thanks Howard Brenton for his frequent contributions to the Hampstead Theatre. It might be that in this case gratitude got in the way of artistic judgement.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Jude - Hampstead Theatre 2019