What a weird way to end. Edward Hall, a talented director whose ten-year reign at the Hampstead Theatre was marred by a 2017 protest at the lack of female creatives on his main stage, opts to bow out with what is perhaps the oldest, whitest, malest play in London right now: Howard Brenton’s ‘Jude’, an ill-advised adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’. Brenton’s modernised retelling might have a female lead, but in every other respect – the pseudo-intellectual dialogue, the entitled toying around with sensitive subjects, the lazy stereotyping – it is wince-worthily out of touch.
There’s just so much that feels uncomfortable. The updated plot takes on far too much at once – Jude is Judith, an Ancient Greek-spouting Syrian refugee who simultaneously dodges the authorities and desperately tries to get into Oxford to study classics. It’s ‘Good Will Hunting’ crossed with ‘The History Boys’ crossed with ‘The Jungle’. A china shop of the refugee crisis, educational diversity, radicalisation and institutional racism into which the bull-like Brenton, best intentions and all, cheerfully wades.
Then there’s the titular character: a squeamishly sexualised Syrian teenager, part vodka-chugging nymphomaniac, part ‘Iliad’-loving bookworm, and entirely ludicrous. Then there’s the outdated fetishisation of Oxbridge and the awkward crowbarring-in of Greek verse (which has to be even more awkwardly translated by another character). Then there’s the ill-fitting subplot about a pig farm, and the clunky scenes featuring the Geordie ghost of Euripides.
None of the cast excels. Isabella Nefar is too skittish in the central role, as is her accent; but then it’d be hard to shine with dialogue as lumpen as this. It’s a damn shame, because Hall’s staging is actually quite stylish. In Ashley Martin-Davis’s design, a large wooden circle is surrounded by stacks of books, sections of which lift up to reveal square patches of earth and sand, all lit sensitively by Peter Mumford. Showers of blood and snow are deftly deployed too. But heigh-ho. Hall’s had a tough time of it lately, as has Brenton. It’s been a while since either of them scored a bona fide hit. Perhaps they’ll find form in pastures new.