Whatever preconceptions you have about an adaptation of Jane Austen, leave them at the door of the Royal Exchange when you go to see ‘Persuasion’. Actually, don’t; take them in with you and allow yourself to be shocked and delighted. Indeed, it is so fresh and surprising that it seems a shame to review it and risk diluting the impact. Ah well – I shall soldier on and attempt to keep spoilers to a minimum.
Knowing the story won’t, however, spoil it at all, since the story is the least interesting part of this show. Anne is 27 – an ‘old maid’ . She has been deeply in love in the past but was ‘persuaded’ to reject her suitor because his prospects were (then) uncertain. She has been pining for him ever since. Meanwhile, all her female acquaintances and relatives are consumed by the task of finding a husband. Things take a turn for the dramatic when Anne’s rejected lover (Captain Wentworth – now a respected and, crucially, solvent naval officer) returns and seems to be falling for a younger woman. So far, so 19th century.
What is so enjoyable about this production are the constant juxtapositions. The language, the preoccupations, the mannered interactions are all retained. But while there is talk about ‘harpsichords’, the actual music comes from Frank Ocean; formal invitations to dance are followed up with sexualised, groping gyrations; the principal Bath socialite, Lady Dalrymple, is actually played (albeit briefly) in drag by one of the male characters in a startling turquoise sequinned jumpsuit.
All this is framed by a stunning set design, which initially appears to be a simple white platform which the characters mount and then variously jump/fall/are pushed off. They pace up and down as they bicker and whine and generally pursue their usual selfish ends. But when Captain Wentworth comes back on the scene and he and Anne begin their journey back to each other, things start to move …
Director Jeff James presents us with a very self-aware, tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. He knows exactly how the desperate preoccupation with marriage prospects will sound to a modern feminist audience and each ‘offending’ line is accordingly delivered as though it were in quotation marks – with an ever-so-small pause before and after. Every directorial choice seems to be explicitly focussed on exposing and subverting the stuffiness, remoteness and forced primness of Austen’s social world. And yet, in doing so, he (ironically) makes us aware of the contemporary parallels and the timelessness of the themes. Our courtship rituals may be different and more technologically based but they are rituals just the same; the agonies of desire and the drive to avoid loneliness still persist; the social pressures to find a partner and procreate continue to oppress us while we try to find our own, independent way in the world. At the same time as we enjoy all James’ challenges to the original content and style of the novel, we can’t help but recognise the social ‘dance’ – with the all-too-familiar dangers of face-saving. misunderstanding and things left unsaid.
But let’s not get too serious. While a case can definitely be made for the continued relevance of this production it is, at heart, a delightful, irreverent piece of theatre. And, above all, it is enormous fun.