The auspicious surroundings of Middle Temple Hall seem like the perfect backdrop to a theatrical adaptation of Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, a story that satirises social climbing, greed, lust and romance. In a way, the building represents what the plot’s vainest characters are striving for.
Yet a bright, neon blue line delineates the traverse stage space down the centre of the hall, indicative of director Hal Chambers’ bold, minimalist staging. Thackeray’s omniscient narration allowed him to create a distance from his characters, to judge them himself. Chambers has taken this notion and instilled each actor with the same power. There is, then, a dual layer to this production, creating an interesting dynamic with the cast performing as both storytellers and characters. Frequently this is played up for comic effect, heavily stylised and wittily cartoonish.
Further, Chambers, alongside movement director Kate Webster, lighting designer Dan Saggars and a collaborative effort from the cast, have devised incredibly creative and streamlined methods of delivering the story. Two sets of step ladders on wheels masquerade as anything from horses to gondolas; candles and flashlights flicker majestically in the dark; dancelike choreographed movement and scene changes keep the energy high with constant flow; and small costumes details over white robes delineate a myriad of characters. Most notably, where Thackeray merely nods to the Battle of Waterloo as a backdrop to his narrative, here the cast have devised a whole nightmarish scene using slow motion, tableau, darkness and simple flashlights. It’s hugely atmospheric and effective. What’s more, the play is accompanied by original music from composer Tom Recknell, whose compositions add English romanticism and musical theatricality to proceedings.
The ensemble cast cope extremely well with constantly changing characters, the complex web of people always lucid. Their energetic and amusing performances provide a constant in what is a slightly fragmented episodic narrative. Despite being overly long – Declan Donnellan’s script would benefit from some editing – this production of Vanity Fair is never less than a thoroughly entertaining romp through early 19th century society, delivered with a striking aesthetic.
Watch: Vanity Fair was performed at Middle Temple Hall from 8th – 10th January.