Marilyn and I went to see Persuasion performed at The Rose on Tuesday 8th March. It maybe strange but for somebody who professes to know a little bit about Jane Austen it is a long time since I had actually read the novel. I have delved deep into Austen’s novels over the years for quotes and to reference her possible thoughts and ideas about life and love, but I have failed to read the whole of the novels since I first read them all years ago. I have lost sight. I think, of what Jane actually wrote. So I read Persuasion again and it wowed me. It is a novel that explores the shifting of society in the early 19th century when much was changing, not just relationships, but class and the industrial world was taking off. It seems apposite that at the moment when the world order is actually changing that The Rose Theatre chose Persuasion to dramatize.
I know that novels, good novels that is, as you read them again over time and as your own experience of life develops, reveal different levels of understanding. So what did I get from reading Austen’s Persuasion this time round before seeing the performance? The word ,persuasion, is used at times during the novel, but not often. The actual consequences of being persuaded however are felt throughout and drive the novel itself. Anne Elliot was persuaded by not just her father to refuse a marriage proposal to somebody she really loved but Lady Russell the family friend and Anne’s particular friend was always the deciding factor in the process of persuading Anne in her youth. Ann seems to have been persuaded into a lot of things in her early life up to the moment of the novels action including turning down that offer of marriage from Captain Wentworth eight years previously. Ann is annoyingly hyper neurotic. Is that because she has always been pressured by others? Does she feel she has no control over her life?. Things happen to Anne. She doesn’t make things happen for herself. She analyses every situation, almost every word and look to an intense degree. She always comes out worst. In this novel and in the play she eventually learns to decide for herself. So a major theme has to be how we use people’s advice and how much we should be persuaded when making life decisions for ourselves.
Anne played by Sasha Frost.
Another issue also, in terms of Jane Austen’s own experience are the relationships she describes. How a woman who never married and who as far as we can tell from the little evidence remaining in her letters, never had a long term and deep relationship, write about relationships that are so real. Trust, understanding, empathy, a deep love, passion, lust and sex, how can she possible know? How can she create and explore characters that have deep emotional relationships, that develop over time? How did she know all this? Reading Persuasion again and seeing this stage production makes me wonder even more. I suppose we all learn more from failure than success. Maybe it was Jane’s failures in love that informed her at such a deep level.
Captain Wentworth played by Fred Fergus and Louisa played by Matilda Bailes
A novel written in the early 19th century translated into a play set in the 21st century, surely, it can’t be done. They are two worlds so far apart. How can they possibly come together and meet? There are the wise among us that say Austen is universal in her treatment of relationships. This is true when you drill down to what happens in a relationship but all those 18th century rules get in the way to a translation across centuries, surely? Class status, wealth, attitudes to money and the patriarchy and what seems to us blatant misogyny but wasn’t understood as such in the 18th century, how does it all get transferred to the 21st century? When I read Persuasion again finishing the day before we saw the stage adaptation I couldn’t see anyway that it was possible to achieve that transfer from the 18th century to the 21st century.
Charles played by Dorian Simpson and Mary played by Caroline Moroney.
Think about science fiction, worlds which are created and can’t exist in reality. This play creates a hybrid world that is half 18th century and half 21st century. Of course there has to be Sir Walter Elliot class riven thinking about his baronetcy and getting into debt. Elizabeth too is the,” perfect,” 18th century catch, schooled in all the propriety of 18th century family and filial traditions. Which self respecting 18th century country gentleman or member of the aristocracy couldn’t fail to want her as his accomplished bride? She awaits in agonising suspension both in Persuasion the novel and Persuasion this staged version. I almost feel sorry for her . She is totally unfulfilled. We have the predatory Mrs Clay, named Penelope in this play and the equally predatory, nephew and cousin Mr William Elliot. Kellynch Hall is rented to Admiral and Mrs Croft. Admiral and Mrs Croft are as loveable as they are in the novel and as clueless about who will marry whom. What transfers easily are the many misunderstandings of who is going to marry whom. Its almost like A Midsummers Night’s Dream in its mistaken who loves who scenarios. The Musgroves, Charles and Mary, Louisa and Henrietta are the upwardly mobile types and perhaps represent a 21st century married couple in embryo. Mr and Mrs Musgrove, their older parents represent the past. The Musgroves as a whole family represent a changing society. Lady Russel, a family friend and near neighbour to Sir Walter is as likeable as she is in the novel. She is Annes true friend. She makes mistakes and get things wrong in her advice to Anne but you always feel her heart is in the right place and she is willing to adapt her views.
The first scene is when Sir Walter decides to rent Kellynch Hall and go to live in Bath. Anne ,who really doesn’t like Bath delays the inevitable by going to stay with her sister Mary at Marys home three miles away at Uppercross. Things like dates and distances are highlighted in this production in a comical way,making fun of what was significant in the 18th century and really is not now.Mary can’t cope with anything, her unruly children, her disaffected husband Charles and she generally sinks into a sort of hypochondria always feeling ill and suffering stress. Only one of Marys children features in the production . He is named Samuel although her children in the novel are merely called, “the children.” He has an accident and damages his collar bone. Anne is the only one able to cope of course. Mary tries to escape the action whenever she can. So, all true to the novel so far. Certain things work in both centuries.
We are informed that Captain Wentworth is of course the younger brother of Mrs Croft and is coming to live with them at Kellynch. The news makes Anne even more neurotic her emotions and thoughts going into hyperdrive. I have always thought Captain Wentworth disappoints in the novel. He takes so long to realise he still loves Anne. Anne for her part has never been able to get Captain Wentworth out of her head. Although statements by Captain Wentworth such as ,”true love lasts forever,” in both the play and the novel suggest otherwise. He simply appears to not be self aware, while Anne agonises and interprets her thoughts and feelings and observations in both the novel and in the play ad finitum.
There is plenty of music and suggestions of balls and dancing in the book. At Uppercross,Louisa and Harriet have impromptu balls at the drop of hat, so to speak. Anne of course does not like to dance in the novel and in this production too. She plays the harpsichord. During one music session at Uppercross the Musgroves home, Mr Musgrove says. “Well played Anne,” after a piece of electronica drum and base played through speakers set around the stage. Of course Anne hasn’t played anything she has merely been standing, a spectator. The audience have a little giggle. Mr Musgrove rather disturbingly performs a robotic dance.Think Ricky Gervais’s David Brent in the English version of The Office
The stage set is interesting. It consists of two enormous white oblong blocks laid one on top of the other like chunks of iceberg. The back drop is a shiny vertically corrugated vinyl blue curtain , representing the sea I suppose, an ever present reference in the play and the book.The great ice berg blocks shift and turn and slide over each other to represent changes of location and mood. For the visit to Lyme the stage blocks shift and the top most block of ice berg sticks out like a cantilever bridge towards the audience.
Now this is where the true Janeite might think things get really silly or even worse, wrong, in a very bad way.
Captain Wentworth doing some great dance moves with Louisa and Henrietta.
Captain Wentworth doing some great dance moves with Louisa and Henrietta.
So we get to Lyme. Bubbles pour down in a great bubble waterfall from the,” gods,” and party time begins. Captain Wentworth boogies in a rather disturbing energetic fashion to Dua Lupa in nothing but a pair of tiny ,”budgy smugglers,” (see the end of this review for a definition). Louisa, scantily dressed in a shiny gold bikini writhes to the music getting up very close to Captain Wentworth. Captain Benwick is there looking disconsolate and trying to enjoy himself mooning over his dead finance Fanny Harville, Captain Harvilles sister. I should mention, some characters from the novel do not appear in this stage adaptation. Captain and Mrs Harville do not. They are alluded to by mention of the dead Fanny Harville.. Mary Musgrove is still moaning about her children and her husband. She seems more stressed out mother than a hypochondriac. In many ways, although she is an annoying character, she is the most modern of Austen’s creations in this novel. She is a mother, not a very good one , but she also wants to have a social life and is interested in things outside the confines of her home. Mary and her husband Charles try to enjoy themselves, with difficulty and dance rather disturbingly. Charles becomes a sweating gyrating mess. This whole scene set in Lyme is reminiscent of the present day twenty four hour partying on Ibiza. Suddenly from nowhere strides a tall Adonis, again in nothing but a pair of brief swimming trunks and magisterially and manfully strides through the middle of the party from one side of the stage to the other and disappears. He gives a hard meaningful glare at Anne, who is to one side. Anne is dressed in jeans and striped shirt which she has been wearing. throughout the play and takes no part in the hedonism. She merely observes the mayhem, looking somewhat stunned as indeed do most of the audience. This stranger is Mr Elliot their cousin unknown to them at this moment, who is to inherit Kellynch Hall and the baronetcy. He is almost naked as he strides across the stage, causing a few embarrassed giggles in the audience.. An Adonis more like Fred Flintstone than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Songs by Frank Ocean, Dua Lupa and Cardi B tracks provide the music. Some of the lyrics are ripe to say the least. I am tempted to quote some Cardi B lyrics here so you can imagine the scene but I will get banned forever from posting my reviews if I did. (Please see the link at the end of this review ). Not for childrens ears or eyes. The tracks relate to modern relationships and describe the good and the bad and the very bad and so relate to Jane Austen’s Persuasion in a surprising way. Who would have thought Cardi B and Jane Austen had anything in common? And as for the dancing, Louisa and Henrietta go crazy with some energetic robotic moves and exaggerated disco dancing throwing arms and legs around in some sort of coordinated wild frenzy.
Louisa and Captain Wentworth get close.
Louisa has her accident sliding between Captain Wentworth’s legs attempting an energetic dance move set in this mass of bubbles. As she lays there unconscious, not seen by most of the audience, the bubbles totally cover her, Anne stands over Louisa and squeezes tomato ketchup on to her prostrate body. Blood and gore, in case you were wondering. The Lyme scene is hedonistic and rather silly to be honest. There is no way Captain Wentworth can possibly recoup any respectability from this scene, surely? He looks like an idiot , behaves like an idiot and to be honest, he is. They all, apart from Anne behave embarrassingly to put it mildly. Louisa is removed from the scene to a local hotel.
There is a break in the proceedings at this point. The audience can go to the loo or maybe have a drink at the bar in the foyer. Marilyn and I sat there mesmerised at the sight of stage assistants frantically hoovering up the soap suds and wiping down the huge stage blocks. It took them forever and we both thought the final part of the play would never happen. The volume of soap suds to be cleared up was prodigious. I don’t know whether the shock value of what the audience had witnessed so far had disgruntled some but two ladies sitting in front of us turned to Marilyn and myself and forcefully complained that we had been playing music on our phones throughout and they were very accusatory. Marilyn calmly and firmly explained that the speakers surrounding the stage had been playing quiet background music and it wasn’t us. They turned around again in a huff.Perhaps their hearing aids were not adjusted correctly. Unfortunately, soon after, my phone. which I thought I had switched off, rang loudly. Alice our eldest daughter tried to get me. I had to turn it off swiftly and I must have been red with embarrassment but hidden, thank goodness, by the dim lighting of the auditorium. The two ladies in front didn’t turn a hair.
Throughout the performance there is a running gag about the year 1806 and said as “18 - 0 – 6.” In a somewhat Monty Pythonish way. A reference to events eight years earlier of course. The other running gag is Sir walter Elliots catch phrase ,”you must be using Gowlands on your face.” Those who have read the novel will know. However I have done a google search. Gowlands has other connotations which I won’t divulge now.
Biographies of the cast. You will see some actors have more than one part.
The stages tectonic plates shift once more and the stage now becomes Bath.
Lady Russel arrives with Anne. Sir Walter, Elizabeth and Penelope (Mrs Clay), are already settled in Bath. There is a scene where Penelope appears to be in charge organising where everybody is to stay. It is suggested Mary and Charles Musgrove are to stay too. Elizabeth wonders where everybody will sleep. Penelope has been waiting for the moment. She suggests, surreptitiously to Elizabeth, that to provide room she can sleep in Elizabeth’s bed with her and kisses her suggestively. Elizabeth is confused but rejects the idea. In the novel I had wondered about Mrs Clays seemingly clinging relationship with Elizabeth. One interpretation is made evident here. Mr Elliot is in Bath and makes his presence known to the Elliots often visiting them. When he realises the girl he noticed at Lyme is his cousin Anne his interest is peaked even more. Elizabeth of course thinks his interest is in her.There is something cold and calculated about Mr Elliot. He has plans.
The major scene in Bath for this adaptation is Lady Dalrymples party. The denouement is set. Now I must prepare you for this. There is no Mrs Smith in this adaptation. So we wonder how Anne is to know the full extent of Mr Elliot’s machinations, but be patient gentle readers. We shall see. All comes to light. If the Ibizan party time at Lyme might shock, Lady Dalrymple’s party will stun you completely. Lights, music, loud electronica and hard driving drum and base ensues. Wild dancing. Louisa and Henrietta strut their stuff. Mr Elliot has totally commandeered Anne by now. He has designs on marrying her. Lady Russel, Sir Walter, Elizabeth, Penelope, everybody think so. Sir Walter, Elizabeth and Lady Russel are convinced a wedding is imminent. Just when we are settling into to a wild party and getting used to that, Ibizan, Lyme style, the whole thing moves up a few notches. Lady Dalrymple, a double take and yes it must be Lady Dalrymple, strides onto the stage. An enormous hunky figure at least 6 foot 6 inches tall, dressed head to foot, in a glistening sequined black rubber ,”gimp,” costume and wearing skyscraper tall high heels . She/ he, moves provocatively in a lewd way. The audience gasped then some giggles. I don’t think anybody knew where to look. Oh my God Lady Dalrymple is a dominatrix. Perhaps she is too in the novel? I hadn’t thought of that, but now come to think about it. Captain Wentworth appears at the party and Anne and he talk. Mr Elliot comes over and forcefully, and with a dominant and even an abusive controlling manner demands she comes away from Wentworth. Anne stands her ground and refuses him. If she didn’t know his true character before she does now.She turns him away and refuses his marriage proposal. Mr Elliot , always cold and calculated, we see it now so obviously, immediately turns to Elizabeth and proposes to her instead. Elizabeth aware of all that has gone before, accepts his proposal. She is shameless and has no dignity. Two people of course not destined to love but to eternally torment each other. A damning statement in respect of marriage based on a desire for wealth and position only. Elizabeth has never had the self-awareness and self-analysis of Anne. She only lives for societies rules. As she spurned Penelope’s advances she once more denies her true self. A moment of sadness that the audience is very aware of.
Anne and Captain Wentworth at last....maybe.
Of course it wouldn’t be Jane Austen’s Persuasion without the letter. We don’t see Captain Wentworth write the letter in this production. It is delivered to Anne during the ball / bacchanalia at Lady Dalrymples by the young boy who was Samuel Musgrove and now plays the part of a pageboy.
The letter is as it should be.
“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope…”
The play ends with Captain Wentworth and Anne professing their love face to face too, that of course has never faded since finding love eight years previously. At long last Anne Elliot finally makes a decision for herself. Lady Russel is persuaded. Sir Walter Elliot is persuaded. So we think, this is the happy ending of the novel. But, this is a hybrid of two differing centuries. A weird and wonderful world.
THE LAST PAGE OF THE PLAY SCRIPT SAYS
( I suppose this is the happy ending people talk about)
WENTWORTH. I’m happy now
ANNE. So am I
WENTWORTH And is It a beginning not an ending
ANNE I hope so. We haven’t even lived half our lives.
WENTWORTH How do you know there could be another war.
ANNE You could be dead by the end of the Summer.
WENTWORTH Or I could die in bed fifty years from now, holding your hand.
ANNE Holding my hand? Am I dead or alive at this point?
WENTWORTH It’s impossible to know what will happen.
ANNE To either of us.
WENTWORTH That’s the fun of it.
ANNE Whatever’s going to happen to me. I’d like to be with you while it happens.
WENTWORTH So we just take the risk?
ANNE Life has some risks.
WENTWORTH Love is one.
ANNE You’ve been lucky before.
WENTWORTH I hope I’ll be lucky again.
ANNE Good luck Captain Wentworth
WENTWORTH Good luck Anne Elliot.
So do you think they get married or not?
Persuasion By Jane Austen (Adapted by Jeff Daniels with James Yeatman) Published by Samuel French at Concord Theatricals 2017 revised edition 2022
The Rose Theatre Kingston upon Thames: https://rosetheatre.org/
Gimp suit: a bondage costume.
Cardi B song lyric: ( an example)
Definition of “Budgie smugglers.”:
a man’s small skin tight swimming trunks that reveal the outline of his penis and testicles. Usually not a pleasant sight. A budgie, being a small compact bird, is the shape of what is seen through the bathing trunks. Hence the phrase.