Persuasion, Royal Exchange

There’s a way of doing Jane Austen. Bonnets. Dresses. Men in uniform. Meaningful looks and wistful sighs. Dancing and afternoon tea.

This is not that kind of Jane Austen. Jeff James’s new production opens with heroine Anne Elliot splayed face-down on the stage under a harsh neon glow. It’s an immediate refusal of the poised female elegance associated with countless stage and screen adaptations. We start not with a ball or a country mansion, but with an image of raw regret and dejection.

That makes this version sound grim and gritty. It’s not. Though James clears room for the remorse and uncertainty that ripples through Austen’s novel, his adaptation (written with James Yeatman) is also an absolute blast. It excavates the satire of Austen’s work from the many layers of frothy period drama that have congealed around it while mashing it up with a series of gleeful anachronisms, from Frank Ocean to foam parties.

The early nineteenth-century manners and conventions gently mocked by Austen find present-day equivalents. The ball is traded for the nightclub and the seaside visit for the booze-fuelled beach holiday. The preoccupation with marriage, meanwhile, doesn’t sound as dated as you might expect. Though matrimony is no longer an imperative for young women, in the mainstream imagination happiness is still bound up in romantic relationships. Instead of the marriage market of Bath or London, we have Tinder and Match.com.

Not that these parallels are pressed. James’s production never explicitly relocates Austen’s tale to the twenty-first century; the talk of marriage and inheritance and the Napoleonic Wars keeps the narrative firmly in its historical context even as, in other ways, this version wrenches it out of time. It’s the sort of treatment that barely raises an eyebrow in contemporary productions of classic plays, but that until now has failed to make its way into adaptations of classic novels.

For this particular book, which confronts many of the tropes of Austen’s earlier work, the irreverent approach works a treat. The marriage that is elsewhere expected (in Pride and Prejudice, most famously, from the very first line) is interrogated in Austen’s final novel. At 27 – the start of the “years of danger” for an unmarried woman – Anne is contemplating what life without love and marriage might look like. Meanwhile Captain Wentworth, the man she loved and was persuaded to give up eight years ago, cynically gets on with what’s expected of him after making his fortune: finding a pretty young wife.

Crucially, this Anne Elliot is ready to tell her own story. As she wryly points out, men have long had the advantage – “the pen has been in their hands”. Now, though, she’s seizing a grip on her narrative. At first, that’s through sheer refusal: whenever her family attempt to interfere, she sharply spins them round and pushes them off the stage, ejecting them from the pages of her story. When this stops working, though, Anne is forced into becoming the protagonist and taking action. Where once she was persuaded, she now stands firm.

In this central role, Lara Rossi is as far from a simpering period drama heroine as James’s production is from bonnets and bows. She owns both her regret and her independence, asserting her right to hold on to past love and reject present proposals. Quiet but fierce, Rossi stares down those who oppose or belittle her. There’s a similar hardness in the eyes of Samuel Edward-Cook’s Captain Wentworth, even when frolicking with new fling Louisa Musgrove. When the former lovers lock gazes, the top layer of Alex Lowde’s stylish white catwalk set shifts position; the earth moves.

This is also possibly the funniest Austen adaptation you’re likely to see. It’s both a reminder of Austen’s wit – too often overlooked or underplayed in other versions – and a tongue-in-cheek take on the very act of adapting. James and his team crash the novel into the contemporary context of its staging in ways that are frequently hilarious. The laughs come both from incongruity and from the occasional, uncomfortable resonances. These characters are figures of mockery, but they’re not always as different from us as we’d like to believe.

The only misstep is a brief kiss between two of the female characters, which comes across more as cheap titillation than as a genuine attempt at queering the otherwise heteronormative narrative. It feels tokenistic – an obligatory but fleeting nod to the fact that not all relationships look like the ones portrayed on stage here. The production is at its best when it does not attempt to update Austen’s tale but instead plays on the gap between the novel and the world in which we now encounter it. Everything on a stage is always itself and something else, a duality that James acknowledges and revels in.

The night before seeing Persuasion, I was at the New Vic Theatre for their version of Arnold Bennett’s novel Anna of the Five Towns. It’s hard to imagine two more different adaptations to see on consecutive evenings. Where Anna of the Five Towns strived to be faithful, the adaptors of Persuasion understand just how inadequate the vocabulary of faithfulness is. When we read or watch Austen in the twenty-first century, we are always at a remove from it, reframing it within our own experiences and social conventions. It’s that messy meeting of past and present – rather than a prettified version of a disappeared time – that this Persuasion puts on stage.

Photo: Johan Persson.

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