“If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk.”
Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to see Jane Austen’s Persuasion in the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. The play was adapted by Jeff James with James Yeatman. It is playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre from the 25th May to the 24th June 2017.
The novel Persuasion was suggested (repeatedly) to me by a friend and in all honesty, I found it rather difficult to read. Compared to the better-known Pride and Prejudice, the protagonist – Miss Anne Elliot first appears to be an underwhelming heroine. It was only when I reread the book and listened to the audiobook that I realised that this was the whole point of Anne. She is a quiet and unassuming character and is overlooked by her family. The director, Jeff James, points out that there are many aspects of the novel that translate well into a modern society; he goes as far as saying “Persuasion is a romcom: there is a pleasure in following Anne and Wentworth’s misadventures” (Taken from the programme). With the romcom being such a popular genre today the translation to stage works really well.
One of the most striking features of the play is the staging. First of all, The Royal Exchange Theatre is a theatre in the round. With the audience on all sides, there is no room for mistakes or lazy scene transitions. The stage itself is brilliant. It is a white oblong with a strip light in the middle. Cleverly, the top half rotated for some scenes creating an ‘x’ shape. This not only allowed the audience to see different perspectives but also created more space for the actors to use and the option of different levels. From where we were sitting, we got to see Anne head on quite often.
Of course, with it being an adaptation there were changes to the original story. Although, the changes didn’t really affect the main plot. The company is small, there are only twelve actors and three of them are on rotation for the same character. So, some characters from the novel were cut to save time and possibly to keep the story less confusing, by adding in people who weren’t necessarily pivotal. Also, as anyone who has been a performer in any type of play will know – stages are much smaller than they look. It can be really difficult to choreograph natural movement in such a small space and harder still for the actor to make the movements not look planned. Characters such as Mr and Mrs Musgrove were not shown and Mrs Smith isn’t mentioned in the play even though she is an essential part of the last third of the book. The story managed without her with some tweaks. With the cast being so small there is some doubling of characters and it is cleverly acknowledged. It only takes a couple of seconds – if that – each time for you to recognise the characters for who they are. The actors play each so distinctly.
However, there is a change that I feel was unnecessary. The character of Mrs Clay; who in the novel is a close friend of Anne’s older sister Elizabeth, and has the intention of becoming the next Lady Elliot by marrying Sir Walter; in the play, she is portrayed as being homosexual and is in love with Elizabeth. Now, I have nothing against the homosexuality or its portrayal in theatre and in the arts in general. In fact, it really needs to be more represented. But this time, it felt as though it was added in because there was no other gay character even mentioned. It just wasn’t needed, it felt like a tick in a box. This may be because I know the novel so well, and it is my own opinion, feel free to let me know your opinions below.
It was really interesting and a definite positive that race wasn’t a factor in the casting directors’ decisions. Anne is played by the brilliant Lara Rossi who is a woman of colour. She was a fabulous Anne and she portrayed the silent emotions that are so prevalent in the novel’s narrative. This had been something that I had been concerned with how it would be conveyed on stage without a huge amount of exposition. The decision to keep Anne onstage throughout nearly all of the play really reinforces the fact that this is her story.
One thing that through me off a little was the ending. It, to me, felt rushed. The second of the story is the slow resolution of Anne and Captain Wentworth’s misunderstanding, and all the bumps on the way. However, in the play, it felt as though Captain Wentworth appeared for a moment of conflict and then disappeared until Mr Elliot was dealt with and we were ready for the happy ending. There was no great discussion between Anne and Wentworth where we see the progression they have made in their time away.
All I can say is this is very well timed and the direction and staging really helped. There were a couple of standout things for me: Mr Elliot’s entrances were on point, the surprise foam party just before the interval, and Lady Dalrymple is fabulous. You really need to see it to understand. So go, you’ve got a month left at the Royal Exchange Theatre. You can buy tickets here.