William Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair as a monthly serial between 1847 and 1848. It was well received and set the foundation for later novels to come, in the Victorian era. Its story, set during the Napoleonic Wars, centers around two young women, friends, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. We meet them as they leave Miss Pinkerton’s Academy and we follow them as their and their husbands’ fortunes rise and fall. Thackeray’s moral points are clear throughout. His concerns are with money and status, and their corruption of society and our personal relations.
Thackeray contrasts Becky, the sharp-witted adventuress, with the conventional and virtuous Amelia. Amelia comes from a prosperous family and marries George Osborne for love. However, since her father has been ruined and she is now poor, George’s father disinherits him. Becky, on the other hand, is a penniless orphan who marries a man, Rawdon Crawley, who has at least the hope of an inheritance. She climbs the social ladder through shrewd manipulation of those around her and improves her lot by accepting gifts from admirers.
Kate Hamill has adapted the lengthy novel into a lengthy play, with great success. Vanity Fair has been produced by The Pearl Theatre Company. As directed by Eric Tucker, it’s a terrific production, altogether satisfying. Running two-and-a-quarter hours, it doesn’t seem a moment too long. Ms. Hamill has, of course, simplified the expansive novel, but the texture of the script is still full and rich.
Most in the cast of seven play multiple roles. The exceptions are the two actresses. Kate Hamill herself plays the central role of Becky. It’s a marvelous, bravura performance. Ms. Hamill plays this smart, resentful hustler with a constant sneer. She manages to make us relate to Becky, if not to admire her.
Becky, of course, has to make her own way in life. “I shall win this game or die trying,” she says of life. She and Rawdon live off loans that they have no intention of paying back, and in the show’s most topical moment she reminds us “Debt makes the world go round.”
As Amelia, the victim personality, Joey Parsons has a less sensational role, but she is nonetheless vivid and engaging. The five actors in multiple roles give us great work, showing themselves to be versatile and skillful. They’re masterfully led by Zachary Fine, whose chief role is The Manager, who addresses us opening and closing the show and from time to time throughout, with a cynical and knowing tone. At the show’s opening he tosses a hat halfway across stage squarely on to a hat rack. His first line is “There are no morals here – in our play, I mean,” and he establishes his relationship with us immediately.
Eric Tucker directs with enormous precision and humor. The stage is constantly animated. The pace never flags and we never weary of these 19th-century characters who behave so badly and are so like us. Through the humor and the staging, Mr. Tucker keeps us aware that we’re watching a play, never letting us get so involved that we miss the point. This is fine Brechtianism.
The words “good” and “bad” keep appearing in Ms. Hammill’s script. Becky tells Amelia “Try not to be too good.” The wealthy matriarch, Rawdon’s aunt, tells Becky “Never be too good or too bad,” and “With enough money you can be bad indeed and still be respectable.” But the irony is never oppressive; the director keeps it within the drama. And when The Manager addresses us, he speaks with such entertaining irony that we’re eager to hear him.
In my favorite exchange in the script, Rawdon warns Becky against one of her admirers. “He has a bad reputation,” he tells her. “So do we,” she replies.
Sandra Goldmark’s scenic design does a fine job of supporting the production’s concept. She’s lit the stage with bare bulbs on the walls in a design suggesting a carnival, and they’re a constant comment on the characters’ behavior. Her choice of flooring, however – it looks like tattered linoleum – is puzzling.
Ms. Hamill or Mr. Tucker inserts a few moments of Michael Jackson-style dance, and it’s intrusive. And there are moments when the playwright throws rather too much at us at once, and we’re confused. But The Pearl Theatre Company has mounted a great success.