Writer: Rebecca Vaughan
Director: Guy Masterson
Producer: Elton Townend Jones
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
“Small is beautiful” seems to be the motto of a growing number of companies which represent one of the most welcome trends in theatre today. With minimal sets and props, equally little administrative back-up outside the performers and directors, and tiny casts (sometimes as few as one), they can take their productions into halls and arts centres as well as “proper” theatres such as Wakefield’s Theatre Royal. In some cases “small” may also apply to the length of the performances (especially those that began life as Edinburgh Fringe successes), but rarely, if ever, to the intelligence and theatrical awareness devoted to the product.
Dyad Productions is an admirable example of such a small-scale company. Founded in 2009 by Rebecca Vaughan and Elton Townend Jones, its impetus is mainly literary and Austen’s Women follows an excellent one-woman version of Jane Eyre in touring this region. Austen’s Women again focuses on the remarkable talent of Rebecca Vaughan in differentiating character and holding an audience’s attention throughout a 70-minute performance.
Austen’s Women, though totally successful in its own terms, is a slightly less engrossing theatrical experience than the company’s Jane Eyre because there is not the same development and progress of character and situation. Having said that, Vaughan’s research is remarkably thorough and perceptive and her structuring of the piece is cleverly done.
A narrator (Jane Austen herself) introduces a dozen or so female characters from her novels who each deliver a monologue which illustrates her principles (or lack), her convictions and her foolishness. What is most remarkable about this is that Vaughan has dug deep into Austen’s oeuvre to ensure that even the links are in the words of the novelist herself. It’s also good to find examples from her juvenilia (Austen rather more high-spirited and obvious in her satire) and from the unfinished Sanditon alongside more predictable extracts.
There is a sort of a theme, courtship and marriage – what else? Everybody’s favourite Austen quotation, “It is a truth universally acknowledged….”, makes its appearance, thrown away by Vaughan with you-all-know-this nonchalance, but she can’t avoid topping and tailing the show with Elizabeth Bennet on Mr. Darcy – self-opinionatedly against and more perceptively in favour. Despite the overall theme, some of the best characterizations fall outside the scope of the theme of young ladies falling in love/left on the shelf/wondering if he’s rich enough. The egregious Mrs. Norris from Mansfield Park attempts to savage Fanny Price for daring to have a dinner engagement and Mrs. John Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility exercises her brain in a spectacular display of creative parsimony.
With the guidance of Guy Masterson, a veteran of solo performances and Fringe successes, Rebecca Vaughan animates the different characters with great skill, sometimes the set of her jaw enough to shift from one to another. The setting – Jane Austen at a dressing table, a screen with dresses and shawls – is simplicity itself, but the lighting cleverly reflects changes of mood and character.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed