In the theater world, 2018 may as well go down as the year of Kate Hamill. She’s the brilliant author responsible for several recent stage adaptations of classic 19th-century novels. A talented actor as well, Hamill was frustrated at the lack of interesting roles for women, and she decided to do something about it. This version of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair may be her most ambitious effort in this line yet, and UCSB’s production of it was truly thrilling. Sierra Hastings gave a commanding performance as Becky Sharp, the novel’s complex protagonist, and Tadja Enos was profoundly affecting as Amelia Sedley, the contrasting figure through whom the story conveys a total picture of the constraints imposed on women by the marriage market of mid-19th-century England.
So much of what we seek today in the way of wisdom can be found in our literary heritage, if only we know where to look. The corrosive effects of unrestrained market forces on human values first became vivid and poignant in the era portrayed by Thackeray and Jane Austen. To this day, the logic of capital continues to drive the sort of machinations and exploitations seen in Vanity Fair. The script of this adaptation emphasizes the point through casting actors in multiple roles. For example, Cooper von Brühns plays the narrator, but he’s also Miss Matilda Crawley, the dragon-like matron who uses her money and social position in an attempt to control the narratives of younger characters such as her nephew Rawdon (Daniel Blanco) and her protégé, Becky Sharp. The vanity — and the cruelty — of life as a fair comes out most powerfully when von Brühns appears in Act Two as the Marquis of Steyne, an even more domineering master. Under the able direction of Thomas Whitaker, this splendid and multifaceted work was a showcase for the talents of nearly a dozen wonderful young actors.