A matador enters dressed in an ornate jacket and revealingly well-fitted tights. As he slowly, rhythmically drags his feet along the ground he takes a dominant stance, as if killing his bull. Meanwhile, Jake (Gideon Turner) sits centre stage and, in a low, gravelly voice, speaks about dying.
This is how the latest adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises begins. In the intimate, minimalist space of the Trafalgar Studios, three actors and the live jazz band Trio Farouche, recreate the quaint streets of Paris, with its brooding, smoky atmosphere and the frenzy of Pamplona, with its excess and chaos.
The walls are lined with rustic corrugated iron and the floor is a speckled, stained wood. Plush Broadway this is not. However, when coupled with loud jazz and the fact you are literally sharing the stage with the actors, it is perhaps the best setting for emulating Hemingway’s ability to transport you into the scene.
Lady Brett Ashley (Josie Taylor) explodes onto the scene in a frenetic, volatile, sensuous and alcoholic style: flirting with the drummer, Charleston-ing with Jake and promptly sleeping with his best friend, Robert (Jye Frasca). Director Alex Helfrecht struggles however with the material once we get beyond aesthetics.
Much of the context; the aimlessness of the lost generation, male fragility and the subsequent immorality is glossed over with drink, dancing and debauchery. The sense of the text is there, but the meaning is lost. Having said that, there is something uniquely voyeuristic, authentic and exhilarating to a theatre where the rows are four-deep and you can see each tassel on the actress’ dress shimmy as she cavorts about the stage, or as beads of sweat roll down the face of a drummer who has just hit his loudest beat.
It certainly manages to reproduce the energy and ferocity of Paris and Spain in the 1920s that Hemingway evoked. Turner’s Jake is given the most to work with and (no pun intended) turns in a haunting and aggressive performance, whilst Taylor’s Lady Ashley is at times shrill, but mostly fierce and captivating. Unfortunately, to fit the expanse of the novel into a two hour production, the director seems to have altered many of their interactions so that their love and jealousy for each other isn’t enitrely believable.
Moreover, some of the other directorial choices are rather strange. For all the sense of reality Helfrecht chooses to evoke by having a live band, the actors then mime drinking from wine glasses suspended from the ceiling, momentarily breaking the continuity of the scene to then continue with their dialogue. It’s jarring and slightly awkward and one gets the feeling it was an interesting idea on paper, but one that doesn’t quite translate onto stage.
After a short interval when Jake decides to relocate to the Spanish countryside and take Brett with him, the audience re-enter the room as a barefoot saxophonist serenades them to their seats. The floors have been doused in vinegar and the hanging glasses are now filled with wine. We are in Pamplona.
The bull-fighting scenes are interestingly executed. Red lighting illuminates the matador we saw during the opening scenes, as he mesmerizingly emulates the dramatic movements of a man preparing to kill his prey. However, Lady Ashley then transforms into the bull in a bizarrely choreographed sequence that results in the actress displaying some nasty bruises all down her legs and arms. Once again continuity and absorption have been seemingly sacrificed for stylistic experiments.
At one point, after participating in the bull run (which resembles children running about in a playground), Lady Ashley declares that it’s “completely mad”, words which ring true for the adaptation itself.
It is certainly one of the most sensual and evocative plays I have ever been privy to, however the substance of the play is as lost as the generation it’s based upon. Characters are reduced to stereotypes – Jake’s best friend Robert is a Jewish intellectual, who throws away his life after a one night stand with Brett, but his romanticism and clinging onto tragic pre-war values are never once touched upon. Similarly, when we meet champion bull-fighter Pedro Romero; a figure of youth, purity and strength, he is boiled down to a kid with a crush on Brett.
The play itself is immensely entertaining and you can’t help but get caught up in the frivolity and tension of it all. However, when considered as an adaptation of one of the classic novels of the twentieth century, it doesn’t quite rise to the occasion.