Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is a very depressing novel. A working-class man teaches himself Latin and Ancient Greek, longing to study at Christminster (a fictionalisation of Oxford university). However, he is cruelly and repeatedly denied admission and, following two disastrous relationships and terrible personal tragedy, he dies alone to the sounds of the shouts of ‘hoorah’ from the graduation ceremony he will never attend. As a pessimistic 17-year-old applying to Cambridge, I took some morbid comfort in the fact that, even if I was rejected, at least my situation could never be as bad as Jude’s.
Edward Hall is ending his reign as Hampstead Theatre artistic director by staging Howard Brenton’s Jude, a very loose adaptation of Hardy’s novel which makes Jude into Judith, a Syrian refugee with a gift for languages. When Sally Phillotson discovers Jude stealing a volume of Euripides instead of cleaning her house, she initially dismisses her, then, to assuage her liberal guilt, takes her back on and teaches her ancient Greek. Jude enters into a relationship with dodgy pig farmer Jack, with whom she has a baby who is never seen onstage. Jude does eventually make it to Oxford and, supposedly through a brilliant rant about the origins of consciousness, manages to persuade Classics Professor Deirdre to give her a place. However, the place is withdrawn under pressure from a shadowy government agency, who portray Jude as a danger to the state.
Some of the most perplexing details in Brenton’s play come straight from the novel: Jude’s reluctance to marry, for instance, even though it would assure her immigration status. The most visually interesting scene of the play, in which Jude pours blood over her head in a shower of fake snow, is also one of the most puzzling. It’s taken from a traumatic episode in Hardy’s novel, in which Jude is traumatised by helping his butcher wife to slaughter a pig. Hall’s production turns it into a kind of ritual for Jude to access the traumatic memories of her father’s death, reaching for a ritualistic dramaturgy that jars with the style of most of the rest of the play.
Jude, the play and the character, are beset by stereotypes. The British people who encounter her are puzzled to learn that she is a Christian and they probe her to reveal a narrative of trauma. Jude, played by Isabella Nefar, with her angry pride and her absolute confidence in her own genius, initially resists such stereotypes. However, ultimately the script confirms them rather than challenging them: Jude does have a traumatic past and she is effectively accused of links to religious extremism. It is not just the Syrian characters that are stereotyped: Sally is a model of hypocritical liberal guilt; Deirdre is a hard-drinking Oxford don who sleeps with her female students and who can pull strings to get students a last minute place. This results in flat scenes, which struggle to gather and retain momentum, particularly in the first half.
Seemingly to add suspense and menace, there are scenes that jump to four years later, with Jack and Sally being questioned by officials in dark suits as to Jude’s whereabouts. ‘What has she done?’ wonders Sally. Yet, despite persistent allusions to Medea (did you know she killed her children?), Jude’s only crime seems to be the ‘taint’ of being ‘foreign’. Unlike Hardy’s novel, the play never ascends to a tragic climax. Instead, Jude has some unilluminating conversations with a character in a black cloak and full-face mask, who is revealed to be the tragedian Euripides. Jude is a stylistically muddled play, which gestures to important issues of immigration policy and social mobility but fails to explore them with nuance.
Jude is on at Hampstead Theatre. More info here.