Royal Exchange, Manchester.
1st June 2017.
Let’s first of all acknowledge how much fun the foam party is and then just move on. That such an orgy of hedonism should occur in a Jane Austen adaptation has left a lot of people frothing at the mouth with excitement. Yet there is so much more to Jeff James’ sleek updating of her last novel than all those slippery bubbles.
Before it’s even begun the production signals a sense of adventure. Entering the theatre, we are confronted by a glossy white platform on which a woman lies face down and motionless. Here’s Anne Elliot, laid low with regret over her refusal to marry Captain Wentworth eight years previously. As the reappearance of Captain Wentworth causes her much heartache, we follow her from country house to Lyme Regis and then on to Bath. Her family and acquaintances crowd around and serve only to prolong her estrangement from him.
Much of the action takes place on the high platform that cuts across and dominates the Exchange’s stage. At pivotal moments when Anne encounters Captain Wentworth the earth moves, or rather the top half of the platform stage smoothly rotates at angles away from the base. At the play’s conclusion it finally comes full circle and both sections symbolically lock back in to place. The set is mostly bathed in an unsparing cool white light like a forensic laboratory.
Designer Alex Lowde develops further some of the approaches he used to such great effect in Headlong’s recent ‘Pygmalion’. Characters are consciously fashionable (in hipsterish contemporary clothing), suited to a society where lives are lived out in public spaces and social gatherings. It’s not a stretch to imagine Regency types casting their eye judgementally over the length of the turn-ups on Captain Wentworth’s ankle-grazing jeans. The cast change their costumes (and hairstyles) in full view, kitted out in prominent mics more suited to a pop concert than a theatrical drama. In this restrictive world of high society balls and formal encounters little is hidden and behaviours are closely scrutinised. There is promenading across the stage as if it were a catwalk and an obsession with perfecting dance moves to impress the watching crowds.
James’ confident adaptation is inspired by Austen’s work rather than cowed by it. There are glimpses of the original language but mostly it is updated to reflect the setting. Behaviours and feelings are also effectively conveyed by means other than words. Anne’s alienation and frustration are manifested physically in the opening section. She spins people around and away from her orbit when she has heard enough from them or, in exasperation, is driven to push them off the edge of the platform.
Accidents (and coincidence) play a key role in Austen’s story. Entertainingly, the production treats some of the most significant of them purely as devices to progress the plot – divesting them of any emotional impact by giving them an air of absurdity. The fall that leaves Louisa Musgrove seriously concussed is audaciously farcical. As she lies on the ground in agony and the other characters express horror at her injuries, Anne incongruously squirts her all over with a bottle of red fruit sauce to signify her bloody injuries.
There are many crowd-pleasing mash-ups of Austen’s then and our now. To a soundtrack including Frank Ocean and Nicki Minaj, the ballrooms of Bath play host to modern-day strutting, pumping and grinding. Similarly humour is found in knowing juxtapositions – at the close of some seriously wild antics at the foam party, someone observes deadpan “Captain Wentworth is in high spirits”.
While the playful reinventions and subversions catch the attention, this ‘Persuasion’ is also consistently good-humoured and surprisingly true to its original source. Cleverly distilling down the essence of the book it emphasises the timeless nature of Anne’s story of second chances and the need to follow your feelings.