How do you take an eight hundred page 1840s novel and make it digestible in two and a half hours for the modern stage? According to playwright Kate Hamill and director Eric Tucker, through multi-roling, pointed exposition and random inclusions of dances like the Macarena and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The result is, ironically, the theatrical equivalent of a novel that needs a good edit, skipping from entertaining to irritating to downright perplexing in the course of a scene.
What the production gets right
Hamill shows an adept adaptor’s eye in her choice of scenes from Thackeray’s original. Those who had not read the novel were never in danger of losing the train of a complex plot and the emotional pacing allowed for more character development than you might have expected, given the role hopping of most of the cast. The moment Emmy (Joey Parsons) and Rawdon (Tom O’Keefe) share, discussing how much they miss their children, is a great example of the lightness of the script’s touch here, boiling down Thackeray’s lengthy prose into tight and relatable dialogue.
Hamill herself takes on the role of the infamous Becky Sharp and outshines the rest of the cast, contorting her expressions to resemble those of Thackeray's illustrations and bringing out the character’s humanity as well as her manipulative nature.
The cast-operated curtains and wheeling furniture makes for rapid scene transitions and is ideal for a play that covers multiple locations and years. The staging evokes the swirl and momentum of the fair – the literal fair Becky and co. attend early in the novel and the fair of society, everyone wanting something, everyone selling something, all clamouring to be heard.
What was less successful
The play’s actors took on many roles, playing not only cross-gender, but once cross-species with Parsons taking a brief turn as the Pitts’ cat. This worked for the most part but took a turn for the pantomimic in the male actors’ depiction of women. In this modern retelling with a clear feminist agenda, men playing women for cheap laughs felt out of place and awkward. Debargo Sanyal as Briggs, Brad Heberlee as Miss Jemima and Ryan Quinn as Miss Pinkerton were the main culprits. I couldn’t help but wish the cast had just played their roles with total commitment and realism.
The crossdressing fit a wider pattern of the cast being too reliant on, and almost desperate for, audience validation and laughter. At several junctures, as mentioned above, they broke out their twentieth and twenty first century dance moves, which added little to the production beyond a confused tittering from the crowd. It looked more fun for them than it was for us and bewildered the audience, rather than making Vanity Fair more accessible. Somebody should have told them to cut it out in rehearsal.
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair has no hero and no moral, facts which this product was keen to remind us of. But Hamill does introduce a moral of her own – that we should not be too quick to judge those who have gone before us, as one day others will look back and judge us. The idea is good, the delivery heavy handed and the point belaboured. It made me wish, as with many parts of the show, that the production team and cast would only trust us — trust the audience to ‘get’ it, to find humour without slapstick, to remain engaged without being spoonfed.
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