Writer: Jane Austin
Adaptor: Jeff James with James Yeatman
Director: Jeff James
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Now here’s a winning formula. Take a two-hundred-year-old classic of English literature, play it on a minimal set and give it a nineties club vibe, while remaining astonishingly true to the original. Sounds impossible, but Jeff James has managed to pull it off with huge success in the Exchange’s production of Jane Austin’s Persuasion.
Updated versions of classics so often get carried away with their own cleverness, losing the core of the original in an attempt to hammer home contemporary parallels. Here, James and co-adapter James Yeatman honour the humour, the sentimentality and the humanity of the novel, and in doing so create a piece that feels both historic and contemporary in equal measure, with none of the awkwardness you’d think that would create. Outdated ideas about a woman’s role, marriage and the expectations of society should seem wildly out of place, but the economics of such arrangements are laid bare and the inconvenient subject of love just keeps popping up, making it all completely plausible.
James has assembled a strong cast of mostly young actors. Lara Rossi as Anne holds the whole thing together as she negotiates her way through polite society while never quite fitting in. Rossi brings a perfectly understated awkwardness to the role, ever the watcher, world-weary yet full of unfulfilled desire. Helen Cripps as her older sister Mary is a delight, with her perfectly timed comedic delivery and Cassie Layton and Caroline Moroney are a perfect double act as Mary’s man-hunting sisters-in-law.
Most of the cast double-up with apparent ease, creating a sense of a whole host of colourful characters. Arthur Wilson switches from the recently widowed and rather melancholic Captain Benwick to the slimy Mr Elliot, while Antony Bunsee plays Anne’s father with a burned out rock-star drawl, and the sharp Admiral Croft with a chippy energy. Despite most of these being fairly peripheral characters in this adaptation, they seem surprisingly three-dimensional.
Designer Alex Lowde has really gone to town on the surprises (look away now if you want these to remain the delights they are). What seems like the simplest of sets, a long white catwalk stage cutting across a bright yellow floor, first swivels to change viewpoints and settings, from the ballrooms of fashionable Bath to the Lyme Regis sea-front, and then becomes gorgeously sinuous when covered in bubbles in a foam party/sea shallows mash-up. Lucy Carter’s lighting design, equally minimal yet effective, adds to the simple shifting of scenes and moods.
The cast manage to make all the surreal madness that punctuates the production – trance dance, bad wigs, an underscore of house music – seem totally acceptable. They switch gracefully back into paired back duologues as though it never happened. They’re all mostly in the auditorium throughout, switching between audience and player, changing clothes – and characters – in full view. It’s both all artifice and none at the same time.
Persuasion’s production team and cast have made a new piece of theatre that proves the lasting legacy of a classic story. It avoids being too clever or tongue-in-cheek. It draws out Austin’s feminist message without trying too hard. It might even make a few people go and read – and delight in – a novel that’s two centuries old.
Runs until 24 June 2017 | Image: Contributed