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Posts Tagged ‘Isabella Nefar’

This is the fifth new Howard Brenton play in seven years at Hampstead Theatre; what I call his late flowering period. I’ve enjoyed the previous four, on subjects as diverse as Charles I, Ai Wei Wei, the partition of India & Lawrence of Arabia, but this one didn’t really work for me. It’s inspired by, rather than adapted from, Thomas Hardy’s last novel Jude the Obscure, which began life as a magazine serial.

The themes of education, class, religion and morality are still there, but the protagonist is now a Syrian refugee called Judith. She cleans for teacher Sally, who befriends her but soon finds her somewhat demanding. Somewhere along the way she has a child by laddish local Jack, though he doesn’t seem to figure much in her life. Judith learns Greek and Latin and moves to Oxford, where she lives with (and beds) her cousin Merch and studies for A levels. Here she befriends Deirdre, an eminent professor who, when she gets her results, finds her a place and a bursary at the University. Then the secret services intervene.

The story is a bit thin and more than a touch implausible. The first half is particularly slow, but things do step up a notch or two after the interval. It’s not a patch on his other work though, and Edward Hall’s somewhat static production fails to bring it alive, looking lost on a big round virtually bare stage. Isabella Nefar is extremely watchable as Judith, with an edginess that is sometimes mesmerising. Caroline Loncq is particularly good as Deirdre, though she does have the best lines, chief among them one where she describes the application of a self-educated Arab single mother as boxes ticking themselves.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Brenton’s best writing about true subjects and real people.

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In just four years and three productions, director Yael Farber has become a firm favourite. This time though, she’s both playwright and director and I often worry that doubling-up leads to a lack of healthy creative tension, and so it is here, I’m afraid.

She first staged this show in Washington DC three years ago, departing from her intention to stage Oscar Wilde’s play and creating her own very different take on this biblical myth. I don’t have a problem with that – it’s all fiction to me – but the dialogue is weak and the structure poor; it just isn’t a good play. She did have a dramaturg, Drew Lichtenberg, but judging by his sycophantic, barely readable programme essay, he isn’t going to challenge anything. So, as playwright, I’m afraid she fails.

As director, her staging is packed full of invention, beauty and captivating imagery. Movement, design, lighting, music and sound all come together cohesively and the virtually continuous singing by two women – Israeli Yasmin Levy and Syrian Lubana Al Quntar – is haunting and extraordinarily beautiful. It lives up to her previous work – Mies Julie, The Crucible and Les Blancs – as a thrilling production, but sadly that isn’t enough.

There is an older Salome (‘nameless’) as narrator and a younger Salome (‘Salome so-called’) who rarely speaks, both beautifully performed by Olwen Fouere and Isabella Nefar respectively. I don’t know what language Ramzi Choukair’s Iokanaan was speaking, and the surtites were so low on the back wall, most were invisible (an easily rectifiable fault, which for some reason hasn’t been rectified!) but I enjoyed the physicality of his performance.

Like Common, sharing the Olivier stage, the play is a bit of a muddle, and it does make one wonder if the QA process at the NT is fit for purpose.

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