Hampstead Theatre, London – 1 June 2019
It’s a storming performance. Young Isabella Nefar as Judith erupts upon us: adolescent, exuberant, afire with defiance and poetry, language and sexual vigour and contempt and high ancient longings. She is a Syrian-Christian refugee, without settled status, a teenage cleaner, an autodidact drawn like a moth to the great Greek classics. Her nightmares are about border crossings, Turkish back-streets, a father horribly dead. Her dream is to read Classics at Oxford. Found reading a volume of Euripides – “stealing makes it better!” – by her academic employer she speaks the great lines and translates with eloquent beauty, ordering the sacred rivers to run backwards and start the world anew.
Howard Brenton’s new play is a deliberate echo of Thomas Hardy’s darkest work, Jude the Obscure: an updated riff on his angry theme of how passionate genius in humble people is stifled and thwarted by society. Hardy’s is a famously grim book (especially the bit I slightly despise him for when the stonemason’s three children die in a murder-suicide with a note saying “done because we are too meny”.)
Brenton does not go so far, though at one point one feels the temptation rising; the important thing is that he picks up and flies with the idea of how underprivileged genius today can “fall through the rotten floorboards” of Britain, what with tightening asylum rules callously applied, MI5 witch-hunts, snobbery, and middle-England’s distaste for stroppy, ungrateful foreigners however brilliant they are. There’s even, in a final lavish twist, a reference to a trade deal about American pork post-Brexit..
If this sounds a bit tinfoil-hat, fear not. Nefar is a marvellously engaging Judith: infuriating, elevated, never passive but hopeful and joyful and furious: she burns before us on the fuel of poetry, wild intelligence and terrifying ancient sensibility. Euripides himself turns up – Paul Brennen in a brilliant, blank mask by Vicki Hallam, haunting her dreams and visions, sometimes awe-inspiring, deeply other, yet finally with an unsettling edge of Geordie-accented camp.
Jude is bent on A levels, cleaning by night and living with rough Jack (Luke MacGregor) a rustic pig thief. This enables some very Greek throat- cutting as, drunk with words , memories and vodka, the wild girl bathes herself sonorously in blood on the soaking sand. The Oxford scenes are both funny and satirically sharp, as Caroline Loncq’s matchless Professor Deirdre – a sort of drunker Mary Beard – is captivated by her passion, fixes her a scholarship and cannily lists the advantages: “Arab – single mother – female – from a persecuted religious minority – I can see those boxes ticking themselves!”. But she is then intimidated out of it, not wholly credibly to be honest, by a security service warning and the risk to the University’s reputation.
It grips constantly and sometimes, especially with the great shiver of Homeric or Euripidean words, shakes you. The last scenes move in a satisfying way between surrealism, sharp practicality from Jude’s rather fine aunt (Anna Savva) and exasperated drunken ranting from the pig man. There are streaks of over-Hampsteady paranoia about the present government, logical holes which don’t matter and one psychological one which does pull you up a bit : Judith piously proclaims that Syrians respect family more than our lot , while having apparently forgotten that she walked out on Jack and her infant son to lay siege to Oxford and seduce her reluctant, religiously intense cousin.
But “ poets are only echoes” says Euripides, and so are playwrights. Distortions, crumples and ragged edges make them all the more beguiling, and Howard Brenton never lets you down in the end. All in all, it’s a rather fabulous swansong for Ed Hall’s Hampstead years.
box office hampsteadtheatre.com to 1 June