Review: Persuasion at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Persuasion is Jane Austen’s last complete novel, and is set most definitely in the counties of Avon and Somerset in the early part of the 19th century. It is a tragi-romance, and although there is some humour to be found in the novel, it is essentially written in earnestness. In the main, the story concerns the 27-year-old daughter of an impoverished noble wanting, nay needing, to marry; and the travails this entails as she watches in horror and amusement her relatives’ follies and dalliances. Her life changes forever though, when she encounters the man she had been engaged to more than seven years ago, and has not seen in as many years.

“Other people will try to persuade you. You must listen to your heart.”

A classic British novel which tells of a time passed; when morals, ideologies, customs, behaviours and habits were all so very different from the present. Perhaps the appeal here is that this evokes a kind of nostalgia, or a wish for change; or perhaps we just like to look at and laugh at the folly of our ancestors knowing that our lives are infinitely changed. Whatever the case, we expect to see a production that mirrors and compliments the author’s intent… and thereby lies the rub.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

On walking into Manchester’s celebrated in-the-round theatre we are greeted with a huge, looming cream-coloured rectangle, taking up most of the stage area. Around this are positioned multifarious sound and lighting paraphernalia, and the whole is lit with a cold blueish wash. A body is lying face down on top of this oblong. It’s female, she has dreadlocks, in modern dress, and seems dead. The cast are seated on the front row of the audience, in costume, and even change their costumes in full view of us all. It’s all a little strange.

First, it was obvious where the budget for this show went. On this rectangle. The omnipresent block is on two levels and the top half is a turntable which moves round at various points in the play. There is no set, no props, and nothing else is ever brought on for a scene. The scenes change fast and furiously, completely seamlessly, and we are expected to keep up with this without being given any visual stimulae to aid us. There is even a point where one character finishes speaking in one scene, stays exactly where she is and continues speaking for the start of the second scene as a different character, without so much as voice or body language change. The costumes are modern, but really rather strange. None of the costumes really seem to signify the character in any way, and are obviously not meant to be completely realistic.

“The problem is it is impossible to know what will happen in the future.”

The only thing to change this monotony is towards the end of the first act, when the action moves to the seaside town of Lyme Regis. The cast strip off revealing sexy swimsuits underneath, and a seemingly never-ending flow of foam cascades from above onto this rectangular block. The cast slip and slide in it and across it much to the laughter and approbation of the audience. This is followed immediately by Louisa, who slips once too often and has ketchup poured over her by Anne, again to much laughter since this is funny. It is only afterwards that we learn that it was in fact tragic, and she fell over the edge of a cliff!

Photo credit: Johan Persson

The language of the play is also at odds with this highly modern vision from director Jeff James. It’s very similar to watching a Shakespeare play in modern costumes whereby the language and business (such as sending letters etc) simply do not befit the updating. And yet – out of nowhere – Anne suddenly half-way through the second act screams the line, “Shut the f&$! up!” It jars and is out of place with the rest of the dialogue. However, if all the dialogue had been modernised in this way, I may well have enjoyed the play more.

Basically, I think what I am trying to say is that I do not believe that this adaptation is true to the author, nor is it at all clear. A mixed production at best. It is at one and the same time ultra-contemporary in concept and execution, and yet firmly fixed in the early 1800s with the language and references.

Fortunately the saving grace of this play is that the acting is really very good. All the cast invested a huge amount into their roles and this paid its dividends. Lara Rossi is a rather moody and sullen Anne, whilst her more frivolous female peers are played excellently by Cassie Layton (Elizabeth and Louise) and Caroline Moroney (Mrs. Clay/Henrietta). In fact, there has been – and still is – much bemoaning that there are so few plays with strong female leads. This play is quite the opposite; there are many strong female characters here.

The male roles do seem less defined than the female ones, but Samuel Edward-Cook’s Captain Wentworth is true and grounded throughout and very believable.

“Love can save your life. But love is the problem.”

Persuasion is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 24th June.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s