‘Shut the fuck up!’ yells Lara Rossi’s Anne Elliot, confronted by her creepy suitor Mr Elliott and surrounded by her universally awful family all rabbiting ‘marriage’, near the conclusion of Jeff James’s gleefully silly, ultimately moving adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The shouting as much as the expletive marks the difference between James’s and Austen’s Anne; the idiot chorus demonstrating the cleverness and sophistication of the adaptation, with Austen’s sharply satirical eye transposed into the play’s ironic characterization and presentation.
Staging is stripped back to a rectilinear stage, divided by a subtly changing neon light, with the top rotating over the course of the play, representing both the shifting locations and passage of time so significant to Austen’s last complete novel. The play begins with Rossi’s Anne spread-eagled on the stage, remaining prone and passive for the early scenes of the play. Actors are dressed in modern leisure wear and the soundtrack is a mixture of dance, hip hop, rave, and R&B, but this is not quite the modernization of Persuasion that it at first appears to be. The action of the play occurs, like the novel, in 1814, with some early scenes flashing back to the fateful 1806, when Anne was persuaded to reject Captain Wentworth’s proposal of marriage by her mother-substitute, Lady Russell. The pop music soundtrack is entertainingly passed off as harpsichord practice and piano recitals, the modern dance moves treated as seriously as balls and gatherings in Austen’s Regency England. Indeed, Jeff James and James Yeatman’s script has fun juxtaposing Austenian-style dialogue with self-consciously modern action: my favourite example of this is a raucous foam party at Lyme Regis with Samuel Edward-Cook’s Captain Wentworth and Cassie Layton’s Louisa Musgrove stripped down to swimwear cavorting in a lot of foam as Arthur Wilson’s Captain Benwick gravely intones above them, ‘Captain Wentworth is in high spirits today’.
Rossi’s Anne ably and emotively anchors the whole production. She is almost always on stage, at first an almost silent and unhappy figure, although the production takes the usual route in adaptations involving Austen’s more restrained and resigned heroines by allowing Anne to voice what remains subtext in the novel: her despair at her lonely situation and anger at being sidelined by her insensitive family, as well as a more revolutionary resistance to the strictures of the marriage plot. The production gifts Anne with more control of proceedings than Austen grants her in the novel. At the beginning of the play, she is able to twirl other actors around, at which point they leave the stage with a little yelp. Anne seems trapped on stage – a state of affairs underscored by the black and white bars on her vest – but able to dictate who joins her on it, until she proves unable to avoid her painful re-encounter with Captain Wentworth on his return eight years after her rejection of him.
The play makes inventive use of doubling, drawing on themes of doubleness in the novel. Several actors play more than one character, with Arthur Wilson playing Henrietta Musgrove’s vicar-suitor, Edmund; the sinister Mr Elliott; as well as Benwick. Dorian Simpson is the adorably clueless Charles as well as making an all-too-brief entrance as Lady Dalrymple. Caroline Moroney plays both Henrietta and Mrs Clay, and Cassie Layton is Anne’s sister Elizabeth as well as Louisa Musgrove. There’s a funny scene in which Elizabeth and Mrs Clay amusingly disagree about which of the Musgrove sisters is more attractive, which segues into a hint of lesbian romance for the pair. Antony Bunsee makes for a memorably bare-chested Sir Walter, sporting a magnificent green velvet dressing gown, as well as the more buttoned up Admiral Croft. Geraldine Alexander plays both Lady Russell and Mrs Croft. At one point, Anne seems to be leaning on Lady Russell for support, at which point Alexander metamorphoses into Mrs Croft, suggesting a shift away from her aristocratic godmother toward a naval surrogate mother for Anne.
Persuasion’s unself-conscious, if self-reflexive, silliness brings Austen’s final novel to comic life, transposing the ironies of the novel into a stripped-back soundscape which makes its characters instantly recognizable to a modern audience. Alongside and underneath the comedy, though, is a melancholy tale of lost chances, missed opportunities, and rage at the limited choices open to women now and then. A complex understanding of love and desire as a dark and shifting experience is allowed to rise above the foam and frippery over the course of the production. The conclusion of the play balances an emotional reunion and mutual recognition between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, while delicately holding out the possibility, with some good luck, that they do not have to live their lives according to the demands of a fairy tale happy ending.
Persuasion, adapted by Jeff James and James Yeatman, was at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 25th May to 24th June 2017.