Ernest Hemingway’s great work, The Sun Also Rises, immortalised a lost, post-war generation. With its pared down style and compelling fascination with the art of the bullfight, it’s a novel of raw and volatile energy, unafraid to approach regeneration and the beauty of death. And Alex Helfrecht’s spirited production attacks the work in a single sword thrust – a debauched and frenetic fiesta that leaves its audience thirsty for more.
Jake Barnes, a cynical American journalist in Paris, is a product of what Gertrude Stein labelled the Lost Generation. An injury from the First World War has left him both sexually and emotionally maimed, a wound that symbolises the anxiety and deep frustrations felt by an entire generation. Isolated by his impotence, he wanders from bar to bar in an aimless haze of alcohol and cigarettes, his destructive love for the promiscuous Lady Brett Ashley breaking down purely because it cannot be consummated. Where the matador is an idealised masculine figure who dances with death in the ring, Jake is the powerless American hero – a spectator who cannot participate but merely watch from the sidelines. The volatile love triangle between Jake, Brett and Jake’s great rival Robert Cohn reaches a climax in the sweltering heat of Pamplona, Spain when they meet the young but brilliant matador Pedro Romero.
As Hemingway’s anti-hero, Gideon Turner is a commanding stage presence, ably getting to the heart of Jake’s restlessness and tortured feelings of inadequacy. This is a man who cannot consummate his love for the only woman he has ever loved, and Turner wisely underplays his plight in true Hemingway subtlety. Robert’s empty love scenes with Brett have a comic touch, which, at times, renders Frasca too pitiable for the rough Robert.
Josie Taylor, though, shines as Lady Brett, effortlessly holding the production together as the wild temptress who seduces the men around her. Neatly treading the line between sympathy and antipathy, Taylor single-handedly harnesses the spirit of the age throughout. Meanwhile, Jack Holden’s fluctuating Spanish accent is the only distraction from his otherwise poised and prancing Pedro.
Though the production omits key reflective scenes from the novel, namely Jake’s escape into the wilderness on the fishing trip between Paris and Pamplona (an interim for masculine retreat), Rachel Noel’s stripped down set of corrugated iron walls and a dancing canopy of wine glasses perfectly conveys the necessary hedonistic loss of control as the characters shower themselves in red liquids during the running of the bulls. But the crowning touch must be the infused live jazz performance from Trio Farouche, which ignites the intimate space of Trafalgar Studio 2, and adds to the heady atmosphere of this irresistible fiesta.