“We pondered life and death and the vanity of it all”
The art of adapting a novel for the stage is often fraught with difficulties, the need to balance fidelity to the source material with the demands of a different art form is further complicated by the expectations and preconceptions that audience members familiar with the book bring to the theatre. And so adaptations run the gamut from slavish retellings to freewheeling interpretations and more often than not, someone will come out saying ‘well it wasn’t like the book…’. So it may seem a brave choice for Alex Helfrecht to take on Ernest Hemingway’s first and most celebrated novel Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, but it is one that is attacked with invention and gusto to create an admirably different theatrical experience.
From the moment that one enters the intimacy of Trafalgar Studios 2 to see and hear the bass, sax and drums of the Trio Farouche jazz band establishing an entirely appropriate mood, it is clear that Helfrecht, who also directs, is as concerned with symbolism and atmosphere as story. The band remain part of the staging throughout, soundtracking the action from bohemian Parisian bars to the bullring at Pamplona and Sonja Perreten’s choreography is frequently used to convey the emotional interplay and depth of passion between characters. And Rachel Noël’s design of suspended wine glasses leaves the cast literally soaked with red wine as a visual cue to the recklessness of their carousing but also the aftermath of the climactic bullfight.
The story has necessarily been condensed for the stage, distilled to the travails of American expats Jake and Robert when the vivacious Lady Brett Ashley swishes into their lives in 1920s Paris. A WWI veteran, Jake is a budding sports reporter and his Jewish friend Robert is a novelist who is preparing for a wedding and neither are prepared for the love triangle that emerges with Brett’s arrival, her self-assurance and sexual confidence an irresistible combination which catches fire as they travel to Spain for Jake to cover the world of bullfighting, the introduction of handsome young matador Pedro further complicating matters, sex and violence igniting to visceral effect.
Gideon Turner’s Jake, driven by his twin obsessions of the corrida and Lady Brett, is a stirring central presence and countered well by Jye Frasca’s more boyishly earnest Robert whose past career as a boxer lends him a prowling physicality. As Brett, Josie Taylor is a wonderfully free-spirited performance, unafraid of her sexual or intellectual power and Jack Holder rounds up the cast as the youthful bullfighter, offering an element of light comedy into the mix which doesn’t always work quite so well. But the overall impact of Fiesta is slowly seductive and highly evocative so that even when the jazz doodlings mask the clarity of the speech, it doesn’t really matter.And yes, in the end it isn’t exactly like the book, that’s because it is a play – enjoy it as such.