Persuasion – Jack Studio Theatre, London

Writer: Jane Austen
Director: Bryony J. Thompson
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright

In one sense there are very few dramatic moments in this production: A little boy is hurt (the accident occurs offstage and the child is invisible in any case), there is a foolish jump off the Cobb at Lyme, Bath is visited. Oh, and Captain Wentworth, “without saying a word” assists Anne Elliot into a carriage. Jane Austen herself acknowledges this to be a “little circumstance” and yet, whether reading the novel or immersed in this utterly compelling production, we are caught up by its significance. It’s a moment that shapes her whole life, and it’s accomplished with remarkable economy. The Admiral and Mrs Croft are sitting on a large white box, Anne steps up on to a smaller white box, and our imagination does the rest.

Anne’s fatigue at this point allows Captain Wentworth to demonstrate that he is thinking of her, that he cares about her. There is nothing calculating about his actions (unlike those of another of her suitors, her cousin Mr William Elliot), and it does not cancel out the impression we have been building of her character. She is actually physically robust, unlike her younger sister Mary (“often a little unwell, and always thinking a great deal of her own complaints”), and thinks nothing of walking out in the rain. She’s also resourceful in a crisis, a quality noticed by Captain Wentworth. After Louisa is injured jumping off the steps, he remarks there is no one “so capable as Anne.”

Anne then pauses “a moment to recover from the emotion of hearing herself so spoken of”. This ought to be impossible to make work on stage, and yet it does. Rose McPhilemy as Anne Elliot and Philip Honeywell as Captain Wentworth deliver a masterclass in costume drama, in how to act with restraint while conveying the idea there is flesh and blood beneath the proper outward form. There is a telling description of William Elliot as someone who is polished but not open, with “never any burst of feeling” – the exact opposite of both Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth.

McPhilemy as Anne often has her arms straight down by her sides, in an apparently static pose, and she uses no overly demonstrative gestures. And yet she conveys a character and a mind constantly in motion, with feelings and emotions and an intelligence visible even when she has no lines. When Anne realises the possibility that Frederick loves her, despite having been rejected by her all those years before, Austen describes the moment as follows: “Her happiness was from within. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks glowed” – McPhilemy embodies this with great skill.

The story revolves around the two central characters, but this is not a claustrophobic romance. There are eighteen named parts shared by six actors, who create a richly evoked social world of family and friends. Expense may have been spared on dressing the set, but not the cast, who are all in elegant cream and silver-grey period costume. The practical difficulty is how to distinguish between the multiple roles with just voice and gesture and distinct facial expressions (there’s no time for costume changes – the actors are on stage all the time). Since neither McPhilemy nor Honeywell double up, the rest of the cast must average four characters each, and they do this very well. For example, for the stately decorum of Lady Russell, Sarita Plowman overlaps her hands in front of her; as Mrs Musgrove she smooths her skirts with a downward motion and, as Mrs Clay, she holds her hands up in a wonderfully silly and flirtatious way. Adam Elliott’s Charles Musgrove has a wide, affable mouth while his Mr Elliot bares his upper teeth in a small, contemptuous mouth. Tom Hartwell and Beatrice Rose are equally versatile, and all inhabit Austen’s language as if they’re used to speaking phrases like “she deprecated the connection” every day.

Bryony J. Thompson’s adaptation succeeds in distilling the novel to under two hours of performance and keeping the essential Austen. Each actor also delivers sections of the third-person narrative, which solves the practical issue of packing in a lot of character and plot information. One reason why it’s not as jarring as it might be for an actor to step out of character in this way is because they’re only half stepping out of, and half staying in character, in the spirit of the writer who pioneered free indirect speech (the technique whereby ostensibly third-person narrative takes on the flavour of the character being described).

The perennial appeal of Jane Austen’s story of Anne Elliot lies in the fact that we all experience the influence of others, and are persuaded towards, or away from, certain courses of action. In this version of the novel, we see the consequences of one such act of persuasion played out with great conviction. And while circumstances and conventions may change with each passing century, the universal truths of human nature remain as constant as the two lovers at the centre of this classic tale.

Runs until 18 June 2016 | Image:Bill Knight

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