NABOKV-L post 0018602, Fri, 25 Sep 2009 14:21:34 -0400

Lolita has always been a tricky text to dramatise ...

Brian Cox excels as Humbert Humbert

John Lucas 25 September 2009 12:45

The prospect of seeing Brian Cox play Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert in a one-off, one man stage version of Lolita at the Lyttleton Theatre in London earlier this week was intriguing. Cox, as Humbert, sat on a hard, single bed, dressed in prison garb, declaiming the text as a monologue, an apologia for terrible crimes. His heavy, craggy face and those ferocious eyebrows were alternately wheedling, amused, desperate, and then disproportionately outraged at the predicament in which he found himself.

Lolita has always been a tricky text to dramatise, as Stanley Kubrick, Edward Albee and Adrian Lyne would no doubt all attest. The story is horrific; the protagonist, Humbert, a depraved individual. Martin Amis has described the book as a ''study in tyranny.'' But Nabokov's prose is also some of the most luxurious, sparkling, and downright beautiful in the literary canon.

It is a pity, then, that Richard Nelson was compelled to fillet much of Nabokov's velveteen narrative in rendering it for the stage. One of the final lines, ''I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art,'' for example, was truncated, becoming merely ''...the refuge of art.'' Of course, word count was significant - there are time constraints at the theatre after all - but it is a shame, given the motor which drives Nabokov's text is surely the uncomfortable disparity between the poetic manner of the description, and the awfulness of what is described.

Cox's performance was excellent. For anyone in any doubt of this fine British character actor's skill, seek out a copy of Spike Lee's 2002 film The 25th Hour. Cox plays the father of Edward Norton's Monty Brogan, a drug dealer enjoying his final day of freedom before being sent to prison for seven years. It is a small, supporting role, but Cox's monologue at the end, where he declares his love for his son, and the future he fondly (and hopelessly) imagines for him, is surely one of the most moving pieces of modern cinema.

This winter, Nabokov's admirers will be anticipating the publication of his long-lost novel, The Original of Laura, with excitement. Sketched out on index cards, the author instructed his family to destroy it: his son Dmitri deliberated for thirty years before finally deciding it should see the light of day. Published in fragmentary form by Penguin Classics in November, with each index card reproduced opposite a transcript, the work has already divided critical opinion in America. Still, a new addition to the master's oeuvre is something to be savoured.

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