Jude review – Hardy's hero becomes a Syrian refugee in Howard Brenton's reworking

Hampstead theatre, London
Brenton’s ambitious but muddled new drama follows a gifted young Syrian woman who attracts the attentions of an Oxford classicist, Euripides and MI5

Edward Hall ends his 10-year tenure as Hampstead’s director with a rum piece: a new play by Howard Brenton loosely inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and featuring Euripides as a character. Packed with quotes from the Iliad, the play has occasional Homeric “winged words” and advances some intriguingly unfashionable ideas, but lacks internal logic.

Brenton’s Jude is a self-taught Syrian refugee who comes to Britain seeking to fulfil her dream of getting into Oxford. Her gift for languages, ancient Greek especially, is spotted by a Portsmouth teacher who first champions but then abandons her.

Undeterred, Jude grabs the attention of a celebrated classics don but is defeated by the fates and the world’s injustice. Where Hardy’s novel attacks the cruel intolerance of late-Victorian society, Brenton passionately argues that today there is no room for natural genius.

The problem is that the plot doesn’t prove Brenton’s point. His Jude is, in fact, fast-tracked into Oxford by a suitably awed classicist and, if she eventually suffers, it is because of her association with a terrorist suspect. A play that starts as a defence of the exceptional individual ends up like an episode of Spooks – for which Brenton copiously wrote.

Merch Hüsey and Nefar in Jude
A model of visual clarity … Merch Hüsey and Nefar in Jude. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Even if the play is muddled, Hall’s production, performed on a circular, book-lined stage, is a model of visual clarity. Isabella Nefar, who disrobed with dignity in the National Theatre’s ill-fated Salomé, plays Jude with the right mix of intellectual voracity and physical assertiveness. She even, in a scene that echoes Hardy, gets to bathe herself in pig’s blood. She is well supported by Emily Taaffe as a Pompey teacher, by Caroline Loncq as a lesbian don and by Paul Brennen, who doubles as a mackintoshed MI5 man and a masked Euripides. But, while the play is never dull, it tackles too many themes: our hostility to intellect, our persecution of refugees, our trust in a sinister security network. In aiming simultaneously at so many targets, Brenton fails to score a bullseye.

• At Hampstead theatre, London, until 1 June.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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