Numerous stage and screen adaptations of beloved novels talk about capturing the ‘spirit’ of the original, just as many comprise of a dutiful scene-by-scene journey through the plot points like a Wikipedia article (it’s also easy for reviewers to fall into the same trap). Roger Parsley and Andy Graham’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility distils Jane Austen’s first novel (the working title was Elinor and Marianne) down to its essential ingredients and simplifies the complicated network of families and acquaintances by focusing on the complexity of the central relationships. Helen Tennison’s inventive use of stylised movement keeps the production constantly flowing and evolving, as befits a story that mixes the fortitude of its heroines with a bit of divine intervention on the author’s part (or one could just say that Miss Austen’s conclusion is rather contrived).
By eliminating Mrs Dashwood and little sister Margaret, Elinor and Marianne are entirely dependent on one another as they embark on their new life. Every component of Ellan Parry’s ingenious set has a purpose: Norland Park, where the girls are treated like unwanted guests in their family home, is represented by a clutter of packing cases and dust sheets. The move to Devonshire has an airier feel with grey textured walls and the grandeur of London is indicated at with red velvet and rich gowns.
Parsley and Graham’s adaptation is mostly pleasingly swift moving, though the explanations towards the end run the risk of being long-winded. Tennison’s use of silhouettes to illustrate back stories neatly ties in with the Regency fashion for silhouette portraits. The symbolism of the multi-purpose picture frames isn’t always easy to decipher, but for the most part they seem to represent the boundaries that keen amateur artist Elinor is constantly aware of and Marianne prefers to ignore before her delirious dream sequence awakens her awareness of the real world. Nicholas Holdridge’s atmospheric lighting and Benedict Davies’s emotive music also both complement Tennison’s fluid visual style.
The contrasting sisters are a gift to a director. Both are dressed in simple white muslin gowns and outwardly differentiated by their hairstyles (Elinor’s neat bun and Marianne’s tumbling curls). There are luminous performances by Emma Fenney and Bobbi O’Callaghan who sensitively root these young women within their social context. The wonderfully fresh O’Callaghan perfectly encapsulates the reasons why adolescent readers tend to prefer Marianne with her “ideals that have no bearing on the real world” and Fenney’s precise and understated performance shows exactly why the magnificent Elinor is an inspiration for all ages.
The way in which James Burton plays the future husbands of both sisters is a risky move that pays off remarkably well. Burton’s Edward is believably unworldly enough to have entered into a secret engagement with the ghastly Lucy Steele and his seemingly stuffy and prematurely middle-aged Colonel Brandon gradually reveals himself to be as much of a hopeless romantic as Marianne. Jason Eddy makes a perfectly dashing Hamlet-reading Willoughby, into whose arms Marianne tumbles from a hill of packing cases. Eddy excellently captures the ambivalence of this rake who isn’t without a heart but still doesn’t deserve much sympathy. It’s hard to imagine a non-white actor being cast in an Austen screen adaptation, and a welcome reminder of how theatre is free from such limitations.
Francesca Wilding’s yellow-clad Lucy is a superb villainess, a real bitch in a bonnet whose simpering voice and overly familiar manners undercut a sharp malice and pleasure in the suffering of others. It’s impossible to have any private life around Lainey Shaw’s vociferous Georgian grande dame, ecstatic at the prospect of having two nubile nieces to marry off, the kind of aunt who’s far more entertaining on stage than she would be in real life.
As the exquisite Emma Thompson/Ang Lee film was a benchmark for Austen on screen, Tennison’s production could be its stage equivalent and shows how beautifully Austen’s “Two inches of ivory” translates onto the Rosemary Branch’s 6m x 5.7m stage.
Read Julia Rank’s interview with Helen Tennsion here.