Vanity Fair is a fantastic story, but not one easily adapted to the stage. The over 800-page book is jammed full of nuance and scandal surrounding the two leading ladies, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. After graduating from finishing school, the story follows the two women as they discover love, loss and motherhood in a world ruled by greed and money. But where Amelia is ladylike and demure, Becky is brash, crafty and self-interested.
What sets this version of Vanity Fair apart, however, is playwright Kate Hamill’s marvelous retelling of the story, which sheds light on William Makepeace Thackeray’s “novel without a hero” in unique and often surprising ways.
The play isolates two questions from the book, to refocus the story around and bring the audience into the world of the play: What do you want? And what will you do to get it? By posing these questions to the audience, Hamill takes the moral quandaries of the characters out of the abstract and forces audience members to confront their own vanity, greed and questionable decision making.
The biggest change in the play is that Becky, a famously unladylike and unlikable character, is utterly understandable. Within this production both Becky and Amelia are given opportunities to speak directly to the audience in order to explain and justify their actions. The result is that Amelia comes across as stronger and less naïve and Becky seems like a modern feminist heroine.
Looking at the play in isolation of the source material, I think this was a good choice for both characters. It allows audience members to see themselves and their own flaws in these characters who are just trying to get through life the best they can.
There is no point in the show where I felt that I could blame Becky for how she handled things. This made her more likable and relatable certainly, but I did miss Becky’s trademark “wickedness” at times. She is still manipulative and conniving, but she’s no longer as emotionally detached. The audience feels like they’re in on Becky’s cons rather than a judging third party.
It’s truly amazing that the cast can tell this sweeping story with only seven actors. Utilizing elements of Victorian stagecraft and musical numbers, the play sets up the story and then sets time aside for the audience to think about the consequences. This play does not happen while you observe. From the very beginning, the character of the Manager (played by Dan Hiatt) addresses the audience and makes it clear that they are not separated from the debauchery on stage. He calls out a bored looking man in the front and the people in the less expensive seats in the back. Everyone is expected to confront their vices just as the characters must live with the consequences of their own shortcomings.
This is done very much by design. Kate Hamill even says, “I’m completely disinterested in adapting things unless I feel like they’re relevant to today.” As a result, this adaptation is not married to the source material. This allows the characters to be more understandable and modern. It also makes them more likable, but whether this adaptation is better or worse than the novel is a matter of personal taste.
Hamill’s adaptation is certainly better at achieving her goal of a stage show that makes the audience think. Trying to faithfully cram all of Vanity Fair into a two-and-a-half-hour play that also leaves room for audience self-reflection would have been a fool’s errand. Hamill’s script captures the essence of the story while making it fun and accessible to a modern audience.
Vanity Fair is playing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater (415 Geary Street, San Francisco) now through May 12, 2019. Tickets range from $15 to $110. The show runs two and a half hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Photos courtesy of Scott Suchman