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Friendship and fiesta lie at the heart of
Ernest Hemingway's first great novel, which surfaced at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago in a hypnotic, verbatim version by the Elevator Repair Service (who returned to London with the eight-hour Gatz last year).
Alex Helfrecht's production is similarly loyal to the novel, but more condensed and frenetic, and the transition from Paris to Pamplona, where Hemingway's cynical journalist, Jake Barnes, forms a triangle of hedonism and heartbeat with his Jewish friend and rival, Robert Cohn, and the promiscuous socialite, Brett Ashley, less marked.
The equilibrium of this already volatile arrangement is further threatened by the incursion of a prancing matador, Jake Romero, and it's here that the show reaches its climactic expression of heat, light and sexual savagery as the good times roll.
In many ways, Hemingway's book is a document of the new Europeans in the 1920s, but there are passages of downtime reflection and withdrawal, too, which this stage version ignores. Instead, we have a sort of Spanish cabaret, with
Gideon Turner and Jye Frasca battling it out as the impotent Jake and rough-house Robert, and Jack Holden, a recent Albert in War Horse, strutting his stuff as a toy boy Romero. “ this is a decent stab at a wonderful book ”
Josie Taylor as Brett certainly conveys the spirit of the age, a free-flowing figure combining the sexual and intellectual independence of Lee Miller with the high cheek-boned beauty of Ava Gardner, a fiesta friend of Hemingway's three decades later.
There's a mood-setting jazz trio on bass, saxophone and drums who are part of the show's design fabric; designer Rachel Noël has also supplied a forest of corrugated fences and a canopy of wine glasses that establish atmosphere and come dangerously into their own for the running with bulls and soaking of white shirts in red liquids.
The Repair Service's three-and-a-half hour version was infinitely more powerful, both radically unadorned and deeply imaginative, with a stunning bullfight; but this is a decent stab at a wonderful book that is just as likely to make you jump on the next flight to Valencia or Tenerife as it is to take you back to Hemingway.
- by Michael Coveney