This is an ambitious play, drawing out lots of topics and themes. It’s difficult, therefore, to fault Jude on the amount of ground it covers in the time it takes to do so. But I wonder if fewer themes could have been explored in greater depth rather than the broad brushstrokes across academia, public sector funding, Islamophobia, corruption in the public sector, family ties, mental health, personal creativity, radicalisation and ancient Greek tragedy – amongst other subjects. There’s more than a touch of the absurdist about this play when ‘Jude’ (Isabella Nefar) claims she has actual conversations with Euripides (Paul Brennen). She states it so matter-of-factly, in a similar manner to an evangelical preacher claiming to have had actual conversations with Christ.
Speaking of evangelicalism, when Mark Nasrani (Merch Hüsey) does a practice run of a religious rant with a megaphone, I couldn’t quite work out whether the production wished to lampoon fundamentalist beliefs or simply highlight their existence within society – perhaps inevitably, a third option is a combination of the two. Mark’s mother Martha (a compelling Anna Savva) puts an end to his plans, physically forcing the megaphone and a placard reading ‘Back to Jesus’ off his person. It is possible that there’s a metaphor there in the continuing dominance of a matriarchal figure who cannot let go of her now grown-up son, such that he cannot learn from his mistakes because he is not permitted to make them in the first place.
In the end, the play is called Jude for a reason, and it’s her story that just about manages to take precedence. An orphan refugee from Syria, Judith Nasrani, to use her full name – Martha is her aunt – she has ambitions to read Classics at Oxford University. She studies Greek, Latin and Classical Civilisation for A-level, and when results day comes around (on a Monday, bizarrely: I’ve never known A-level results to be published on a Monday), she insists that her grades are incorrect and should be higher, though they are perfectly respectable.
It’s a rather damning indictment that the university sector doesn’t seem to have progressed much, if at all, from a generation ago when Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita premiered in 1980. It’s not that Judith is made to conform to received pronunciation and etiquette in the way in which Eliza Doolittle was in Pygmalion or My Fair Lady, but that there are still obstacles to overcome for someone who isn’t from a well-to-do family. The efforts of Deirdre (Caroline Loncq), who seems to be both a Head of Faculty and an Admissions Officer, to assist Judith in her ambitions are thwarted by something called ‘the national interest’ – it’s too much of a spoiler to provide any further details on that point.
Then there’s Sally (Emily Taaffe), Judith’s employer (even if not for very long), and Jack (Luke MacGregor), whom Judith forms a relationship with. There seemed to me to be more scene changes than were strictly necessary, and particularly in the first half, the storyline doesn’t unravel in forward chronological order, which overcomplicates the production somewhat with no discernible benefit. I didn’t feel the production wasn’t really in the spirit of Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure on which it is very loosely based, though the blood of a pig was in evidence (ooh, look, yet another theme – cruelty to animals) – let it not be said that I didn’t warn you about that.
The play raises more questions than it answers. Why exactly does Euripides have a north-east accent? The inclusion of Greek poetry, spoken in Greek by Judith, is arguably impressive, but it necessarily has to be translated, usually by Sally. I think the production could have taken a leaf out of the Royal Opera House, or the musical Once, and made use of surtitles instead. It’s never boring, which is always a good thing, but it’s not edge-of-the-seat material either.
Review by Chris Omaweng
About to be fired from her cleaning job for stealing a volume of Euripides, Jude turns her employer’s outrage to shock by translating the ancient Greek on the spot. The employer, a Classics teacher, knows great talent when she sees it and the encounter kick-starts Jude’s lifelong ambition to study at Oxford University. Entirely self-taught and possessing an astonishing gift for languages, Jude will stop at nothing to achieve her dream – but she remains oblivious to the hidden barriers that her background has placed in her path…
Booking to 1st June 2019