Friday, 16 June 2017

Persuasion

For the 200th anniversary of its publication, this Jane Austen classic has been yanked into the 21st century

Written by Ian Shuttleworth
Now, be honest: if you were making a list of stage adaptations for which you’d expect to find a notice at the theatre door warning about strobe lighting effects, your top 500 probably wouldn’t include Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Well, if you were in Manchester at the moment, you’d be wrong. But be honest, too: having encountered that sign, you’d expect the show to be just a self- satisfied, modish ‘update’ far more concerned with its own ideas than with those of Miss Austen. And you’d be wrong there, too. ian

Jeff James, who co-adapts and directs, has assisted hotshot Flemish director Ivo van Hove on several of the latter’s British productions, and his approach here is similar to van Hove’s usual method. James uses a broadly contemporary staging, not because Modern Is Good, but because stripping the material of those elements that pin it palpably in a past era allow its concerns to be seen more clearly in our own. Thus, when Austen’s characters pay a visit to Lyme Regis, the sea is represented by a torrent of suds that cascade down on to the stage, and characters begin to body-surf... one, on press night, right into the lap of a surprised (and, I think, delighted) front-row punter.

But the words, sentiments and emotions remain clearly and powerfully Austen’s. (Well, almost all the words: I’m not sure any Austen character ever dropped an F-bomb at a society soirée in Bath.)

Lara Rossi conveys all the complexities of protagonist Anne Elliot: rightly disdainful of a social culture seemingly concerned only with marrying its younger members off, but allowing that disillusionment to alienate her too far. (Mark Twain spoke of a cat he had that sat on a hot stove once and never sat on a hot stove again. ‘What’s wrong with that?’ asked someone, to which Twain replied that the damn fool cat never sat on a cold stove either.)

Likewise, we see throughout the play the different aspects of persuasion, from selfish manipulation to honest counsel, and Anne’s process of learning to distinguish between them. (The novel, published posthumously exactly 200 years ago, was given its title not by Austen but her brother.)

Clearly, I can’t pretend that James’s version is wholly devoid of wackiness. But on the few occasions when it really goes to town (and I don’t mean Bath), the crucial thing is that it doesn’t set itself above the material; when laughs come, they’re warm laughs at the cheek of the adaptation, not derision at any distortion of Austen – there’s none of that. So, as the Cresta polar bear used to remark: it’s frothy, man.

Until 24 June at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester: 0161-833 9833, www.royalexchange.co.uk 


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