As Captain Wentworth and Louisa Musgrave slide across the stage in bikinis and swimming trunks through a waterfall of foam, and the other members of their party look indulgently on at their ‘high spirits’, I think: “What on earth am I watching here?”
Persuasion, the last completed work of Jane Austen, is well known for being the most melancholy of her novels, which is why I wasn’t expecting to be laughing my way through most of this production. However, what could have been a shallow attempt at modernisation is instead turned into a sensitive and intelligent adaptation by director Jeff James and dramaturg James Yeatman.
The core of the story remains the same. Anne Elliot (Lara Rossi), at the age of 27, watches her family fall into debt as Captain Wentworth (Samuel Edward-Cook) returns rich and successful from the Napoleonic Wars. Eight years ago, she had allowed herself to be persuaded to reject his marriage proposal. Now she has to see him court younger women, as she prepares to leave the house she loves.
Lara Rossi won me over to Anne, a character I always considered a bit of a doormat. While her Anne doesn’t exactly pile on the laughs like the other characters, she does convey the impression of a woman who has made a terrible decision and has to make the best of it. She is not tragic enough to match the absurdity of her surroundings, but expresses a regret and quiet intensity that you can’t help but fall in love with.
By bringing the novel halfway into the modern era, James shows us just what a satirical master of human nature Austen was, and reveals the arresting themes that often get lost in Regency trappings. Instead of giving us the expected cravats, high-waisted dresses and classical music, James swaps piano chords for electro beats and a period set for an intimate, stark white in-the-round staging.
The cast wear clothes that at first sight seem ridiculous, but actually reflect the characters personalities completely. Sir Walter Elliot (played by Antony Bunsee) lounges around like an ageing, seedy rockstar in a velvet dressing gown with fur collar, while Lady Russell (Geraldine Alexander) strides around in heels, joggers and a crisp white shirt. Double casting also shows how versatile Bunsee and Alexander are, as the two simply don anoraks, sometimes in mid-scene, to become the wholesome Admiral and Sophie Croft. Elizabeth Elliot (Cassie Layton) and Mrs Clay (Caroline Moroney), who also double hilariously as the teeny bopper Musgrave sisters, bring a wonderful absurdity to every scene they’re in.
What on the surface seems to be just a comic adaptation slowly reveals itself as something far more – a stripping-down to the bare bones of what Persuasion is really about. As Anne stands on the edge of the plain white stage that is the coastal town of Lyme Regis and says bleakly, “I’ve never seen the sea”, we are reminded that Persuasion is not just a story on love and class, but also a resonant celebration of life’s second chances. And this adaptation captures that cadence perfectly.
Persuasion is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until June 24th. For more details, click here.