The novelist Vladimir Nabokov boasted that the notoriety of his 1955 novel had dissuaded anyone naming a daughter Lolita ever again. The teenage nymphet doesn’t appear in Brian Cox’s two-hour monologue, but she’s clearly a girl best avoided: selfish, mendacious, manipulative.
It’s one of the really clever things in Cox’s performance as Humbert Humbert in Richard Nelson’s faithful distillation – every single word is Nabokov’s – that Lolita comes across as a spoilt, irritating little hussy; it adds poignancy to the fate of this flabby, helpless old man smitten with lust for a 12-year-old, sitting in his prison cell, awaiting trial for murder.
The limitation is that Cox hasn’t quite learned the lines – he’s giving just three Monday performances – which is almost fine as he’s legitimately reading from notebooks, but there are worrying little lacunae as his attention flicks between page and audience.
Still, he subtly turns hesitation to expressive advantage. He’s far more battered and far less soigné than were James Mason or Jeremy Irons in the film adaptations, and Nelson’s editing and direction emphasis is on the early entrapment. So we see HH on the Riviera enchanted by his childhood passion, the unobtainable Annabel, whose sudden death seems to have frozen his sexual proclivities at a tremulous pubescence.
The move to New York, the accidental lodging in New England with the widow he marries, and her provocative daughter – Dolores Haze (Lo, Lola, Dolly, Lo-lee-ta) is soon the light of his life, fire of his loins – the adventure at summer camp; all is expertly edited from the novel, which then stretches out and away from the stage in its road movie elements.
But at a time of renewed public hysteria over paedophilia and teenage sex, it’s sobering indeed to be reminded of the well springs of human passion common to us all, whatever our sexual orientation, and Cox presents a masterful portrait of a man who accepts that his condition is as much a glorious human blessing as it is a socially inconvenient curse.