In Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises), writer and director Alex Helfrecht uses live music, dance and a distinctive performance style to portray the debauchery and wild passions that characterise Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel about a love triangle.
Members of the Trio Farouche jazz band are dotted around the performance space and transport the audience to a seedy bar in 1920s Paris favoured by American expats Jake and Robert. After serving as an ambulance driver in World War I, Jake is establishing himself as a sports journalist, while Robert is preparing to get married. However, their lives are thrown into disarray by the arrival of Lady Brett Ashley, who has gone to great lengths to track Jake down.
As well as the excellent music, Helfrecht relies on symbolism throughout. Jake’s love of bullfighting introduces one of the oldest metaphors for masculinity. But Helfrecht uses the device creatively, often reversing traditional gender roles as the play subverts much of what we think we know about the characters.
As Jake, Gideon Turner exudes the apparent nonchalance of someone who believes he knows more than anybody else. As Lady Ashley, Josie Taylor is a perfect combination of wit and charm, with a terrible desperation evident just below the surface. With his bespectacled earnestness, Jye Frasca is well cast as the dupe of the piece and Jack Holden brings humour to the role of the matador. They all move beautifully during the more physical parts of this multi-faceted and enjoyable piece.
This adaptation of Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises, is intense and compelling.
Bad drama sticks in the memory every bit as stubbornly as the very best, and, accordingly, any mention of Ernest Hemingway still conjures up painful memories for me of Too Close to the Sun, a short-lived, accident-prone musical about the author’s final days. Staged in 2009, it is generally reckoned to be one of the biggest turkeys of recent theatrical history.
The Trafalgar Studios now clearly feels that sufficient time has elapsed to risk another night out with the destructive old hell-raiser. Fiesta is Alex Helfrecht’s adaptation of Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, about a group of American and British expats who become caught up in the seductive power of bullfighting in Pamplona in the Twenties. A hot, sweaty, lustful tale like this had a definite allure on one of the coldest nights of the year.
The fine ensemble cast, under the direction of Helfrecht, makes the best possible job of cramming what is very much an epic, widescreen tale into the confines of one of the smallest stages of the capital. I was soon shedding layers of jumpers and coats as the Trio Farouche – on sax, drums and double bass – began raising the temperature in the auditorium as much as the graphically enacted sex scenes.
Granted, the big set-piece bullfight is mildly embarrassing, with poor old Josie Taylor, playing Lady Brett Ashley, having to double up as the bull. The sexual web in which her ladyship entangles Gideon Turner (as Jake Barnes, the autobiographical bearded newspaperman with an addiction to bullfighting), Jack Holden’s dashing toreador Pedro and Jye Frasca (a hard-drinking writer named Robert) is, however, involvingly spun.
All of the performances are interestingly nuanced. Turner communicates just the mildest hint of repressed homosexuality in Jake, which adds an interesting dimension to the scenes between his character and Pedro, who is played by Holden with just the right mix of arrogance and vulnerability. Frasca – so good in Thrill Me and Jersey Boys – effortlessly switches, meanwhile, between the comedy and tragedy that his character brings to the proceedings.
But it is Taylor, as the aristocratic beauty, upon whom the whole thing ultimately hinges – and she does not disappoint. Looking just a little bit like a young Julie Andrews, she carries her sexual magnetism with a world-weary insouciance that makes all the men in her presence look, after a while, like silly little boys. “Frailty,” as she tartly observes, “thy name is man.”
This is an intense, raw and compelling piece of theatre, which, with the youthful audiences that it is attracting, suggests to me that the Trafalgar Studios are going to be at the cutting edge this year. Certainly, with James McAvoy's Macbeth opening this week, it is a venue that’s going to be very hard to ignore.
It takes a certain chutzpah to try and cram Ernest Hemingway's novel, with its portrait of Paris and Pamplona in the 1920s and its vivid evocation of bullfighting, on to this tiny stage. But, although adaptor-director Alex Helfrecht sacrifices much and seems determined to turn Hemingway's account of the Lost Generation into the Lust Generation, she at least makes you re-examine one of the finest novels of the last century.
The focus in Helfrecht's version is on the stylish, sexually adventurous Enlisghwoman Lady Brett Ashley, and her involvement with three men: the expatriate American newspaperman Jake, the besotted Jewish novelist Robert and the starry 19-year-old toreador Pedro. This means we not only lose some of the rackety aficionados who converge on Pamplona in July, but also Hemingway's superb contrast between the frenzy of the fiesta and the tranquillity of the Spanish countryside. Even the account of Brett's involvement with Jake is crucially altered, so that it is only after a strenuous attempt at sexual coupling that she seems to realise he has been rendered impotent by a war wound.
It makes for a lively evening, thanks partly to the on-stage presence of Trio Farouche who, on sax, drums and double bass, supply some of the atmosphere missing from the text. And, even if Josie Taylor doesn't quite live up to Hemingway's description of Brett as someone "built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht", she brings a fierce romantic longing and lack of physical inhibition to the role. Gideon Turner as the newspaperman addicted to the power of the corrida, Jye Frasca as the pugilistic novelist and Jack Holden as the charismatic toreador, modelled on the great Antionio Ordonez, do all that is required of them. This certainly isn't Papa for purists. But it reminds you of Hemingway's touching concern for dignity in the face of defeat.
The Public Reviews
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 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.
Ernest Hemingway’s great work, The Sun Also Rises, immortalised a lost, post-war generation. With its pared down style and compelling fascination with the art of the bullfight, it’s a novel of raw and volatile energy, unafraid to approach regeneration and the beauty of death. And Alex Helfrecht’s spirited production attacks the work in a single sword thrust – a debauched and frenetic fiesta that leaves its audience thirsty for more.
Jake Barnes, a cynical American journalist in Paris, is a product of what Gertrude Stein labelled the Lost Generation. An injury from the First World War has left him both sexually and emotionally maimed, a wound that symbolises the anxiety and deep frustrations felt by an entire generation. Isolated by his impotence, he wanders from bar to bar in an aimless haze of alcohol and cigarettes, his destructive love for the promiscuous Lady Brett Ashley breaking down purely because it cannot be consummated. Where the matador is an idealised masculine figure who dances with death in the ring, Jake is the powerless American hero – a spectator who cannot participate but merely watch from the sidelines. The volatile love triangle between Jake, Brett and Jake’s great rival Robert Cohn reaches a climax in the sweltering heat of Pamplona, Spain when they meet the young but brilliant matador Pedro Romero.
As Hemingway’s anti-hero, Gideon Turner is a commanding stage presence, ably getting to the heart of Jake’s restlessness and tortured feelings of inadequacy. This is a man who cannot consummate his love for the only woman he has ever loved, and Turner wisely underplays his plight in true Hemingway subtlety. Robert’s empty love scenes with Brett have a comic touch, which, at times, renders Frasca too pitiable for the rough Robert.
Josie Taylor, though, shines as Lady Brett, effortlessly holding the production together as the wild temptress who seduces the men around her. Neatly treading the line between sympathy and antipathy, Taylor single-handedly harnesses the spirit of the age throughout. Meanwhile, Jack Holden’s fluctuating Spanish accent is the only distraction from his otherwise poised and prancing Pedro.
Though the production omits key reflective scenes from the novel, namely Jake’s escape into the wilderness on the fishing trip between Paris and Pamplona (an interim for masculine retreat), Rachel Noel’s stripped down set of corrugated iron walls and a dancing canopy of wine glasses perfectly conveys the necessary hedonistic loss of control as the characters shower themselves in red liquids during the running of the bulls. But the crowning touch must be the infused live jazz performance from Trio Farouche, which ignites the intimate space of Trafalgar Studio 2, and adds to the heady atmosphere of this irresistible fiesta.