I love going to the theatre. I get a real thrill out of seeing actual people perform in front of me. I am even more keen to go if the play on offer is in any way, shape or form related to Jane Austen.
In the last two months, I’ve been lucky enough to see two plays inspired by Jane Austen’s novels. The first one was Northanger Abbey by Cambridge-based Fireside Theatre. The second one was Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort of), a production of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, the Tron Theatre Company and Blood of the Young.
The plays approached Austen’s material very differently, but, to my surprise, I enjoyed both very much. So I began to ask myself: what makes a good Austen adaptation for the stage?
A Tale of Two Adaptations
The first play, which I saw in August during the Edinburgh Festival, was a traditional adaptation of Northanger Abbey, albeit with the limitations of stage productions. The actors and actresses had the clipped English accents we have come to expect in anything Austen-related. Indeed, much of the playbook (adapted by Madeleine Trépanier) was dialogue extracted directly from Austen’s novel.
Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) was quite the opposite. Highlighting the comedic aspects of the story, it strayed away from convention and came up with entirely unexpected settings. For example, a heart-to-heart conversation between Elizabeth and Charlotte takes place in the toilets of a nightclub, while the Netherby Ball becomes a riotous house party. The play also featured a welcome assortment of British accents rarely heard in Austen adaptations.
Where the Plays Differed: the Dialogue, Scenography and Costumes
While watching Northanger Abbey, I remember I kept thinking to myself, “oh yes, I remember when Mrs Allen said that”. It was funny, but very much in the traditional Austen way. In Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*), Isobel McArthur’s playbook used contemporary language, and very direct at that, including a fair few swear words, in a sort of Netflix-meets-Austen approach. It also verged on slapstick at times, particularly when one of the Bingleys (both played by Hannah Jarrett-Scott) was on stage.
With regards to the staging of the play, Northanger Abbey benefited from the grand setting of the French Institute in Edinburgh. In spite of this, the scenography itself was just a few chairs against a black curtain, the standard background during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, when tight schedules force productions to scale down to their bare bones. On the other hand, Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) had a very imaginative staging, with a magnificent staircase dominating the stage.
Both productions coincided in the use of plain Regency clothing as a blank canvas over which to layer different items of clothing, depending on the character. However, where the Northanger Abbey production featured the customary satin slippers, bonnets and shawls, the wardrobe choices of Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) were a different story. The six actresses wore Doc Martens boots and contemporary hairstyles, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh even hid her shifty eyes behind a pair of Jackie Kennedy-inspired sunglasses.
Where the Plays Coincided: Youth, Enthusiasm and Lots of Music
Both plays featured energetic casts of young actors juggling multiple roles with admirable ease. In Northanger Abbey, Mrs Allen was played with impeccable comic timing, Catherine was suitably naive, and Mr Thorpe was quite perfect. The casting of Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) was much riskier, but somehow it worked. For example, Meghan Tyler, with her blue eyes and a resounding Belfast accent, would have looked like the wrong choice for Elizabeth on paper, but on stage she was exceptional, channelling Lizzy’s feistiness to perfection.
Equally, both plays featured live music and dancing. Northanger Abbey even included competently executed Georgian ballroom dancing. Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) went beyond the harp or the violin to also include guitar, trumpet, accordion and piano, as well as a few musical routines more Broadway than Regency. The play also featured a garish karaoke machine put to exceedingly good use, with a particularly memorable (and hilarious) rendition of Lady in Red, introduced as “a song by Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s cousin, Mr Christian de Burgh.”
Love of Austen as Common Denominator
It struck me that, although very different, both adaptations worked very well on stage. In Northanger Abbey, the path chosen was gentle and familiar, like a visit to a much-loved great-aunt to eat a proper Sunday roast. Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) had a radically different approach, a bit like going to a live gig with your millennial cousin after a meal of Romanian street food.
Looking at what they had in common, I concluded that the productions were so successful because the spirit of the original novels was alive and kicking in both. Each, in its own way, allowed Jane Austen’s story and characters to take centre stage and shine brightly. It was a reminder that, as creators and consumers of Austen variations, adaptations and continuations, we all share a love for our favourite author.
Northanger Abbey had a run in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but if you are in the UK you can still catch Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) in Edinburgh, Leeds, Oxford and Southampton. See Blood of the Young’s Twitter feed for details.
Have you seen an adaptation of an Austen novel for the stage? Do you think it was faithful to the original story? What did you most/least like about it? How did it differ from film and TV adaptations?