Before I launch into Emma, I feel compelled to note that this is my third post here since the pandemic began. It’s an odd way to calculate the time. This week is also notable as schools reopened here in Switzerland. My daughter’s class is split into two groups, and they alternate mornings and afternoons. They are not wearing face masks (first question everyone asks me). It’s all extremely nerve-racking, both exciting and terrifying.
A little musical theater is an excellent form of escapism. I did not try to recruit the family to watch Emma after their negativity regarding the Pride and Prejudice musical I streamed and reviewed last month (read my post here), so once more I enjoyed the production from my bathtub, pretty much the only place where I have any privacy anymore. Streaming a play, even one well-filmed (and in this regard, Emma is maybe the best I’ve ever seen), cannot be the same as the live experience, but being able to watch while soaking in lavender-scented bliss compensates. Throughout the lockdown I have not read a book, wrote a word, or done much of anything for myself but watch these Paul Gordon musicals. I feel so grateful that Streaming Musicals produced such soul-satisfying content for me to retreat into for a few hours! Emma is an earlier production than Pride and Prejudice (it was filmed in 2018 but was first developed in 2007), and is also available for rent and purchase on Amazon Prime. The story is reimagined in the mid-20th century. Images from other productions show this was the notion of director Kent Nicholson. Unfortunately, it renders Emma even more narcissistic and Highbury a virtual fairyland, where the Old World carries one as if WWII never happened. On the other hand, and while I am always disappointed to be deprived of pre-modern costuming, the setting did make the contemporary music feel less jarring than I found the score for Pride & Prejudice to be, and preserved the costume designer (Kara Branch) from my fits of outrage, for they may not be 19th century, but Emma’s clothing is fabulous. It doesn’t hurt that Kelli Barrett, who stars in the role, wears the costumes with the ease of Katharine Hepburn. Much of her dialog is composed of first person monologues directed at the audience, or rather the camera (I wish they weren’t filmed quite so closeup, as it feels less theatrical). Barrett’s performance is excellent, but this Emma Woodhouse is more unlikable than most, which is really saying something, as this is the Austen heroine everyone loves to hate. Throughout the play she is petty, mean, horrendously classist, and at the end she is back to matchmaking, unrepentant and as officious as ever. Here is the trailer:
I admit to being a bit sensitive when it comes to Miss Woodhouse. I am, for better or worse, a lot like her in many, many ways, particularly in my confidence in my own opinion, so it kind of hurts to see the character lack the emotional growth to truly learn from her mistakes. It’s a very unsympathetic portrayal. I was left wondering what Mr. Knightley, who is very likeable in this play, sees in her.
I can’t help but gush a bit about Timothy Gulan as our hero. He feels a little bit like a Henry Higgins at times, and misogynistic as that character may be, he is amongst my very favorites. Maybe the actor isn’t exactly a heartthrob, but it doesn’t matter. The performance is great, his voice magnificent, and I can totally understand why both Emma and Harriet fall for him, but I wish his feelings weren’t revealed to the audience so early. This occurs following the ball at the Crown, where, in the novel, Austen drops her first hint that there may be romance brewing between the two principals, but I do not think Mr Knightley knows his own heart at this point in the story. The disclosure disrupts the cadence of the plot, but not so much so as that regarding Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Their secret engagement is exposed to the audience barely halfway through the show (so much for mystery). Gordon does something similar in Pride & Prejudice, giving us insight into Darcy’s feelings very soon after he meets Elizabeth, and I think it works well in that context, but not here. It undermines the brilliance of Austen’s plot, and Emma’s continued ignorance while the audience is fully informed makes her appear foolish, on top of all her other deficiencies. So why does Mr. Knightley fall in love with her? I’ve come up with two possible answers, neither of which reflect well on his character: either he is one of those gentlemen, referred to in the novel, who cares more for a pretty face than a well-formed mind, or he’s lazy and lonely, and she’s convenient and comfortable.
I’ve long argued that Emma, of all Austen’s books, is the most conformable to the screen, hence the many versions available. And while some fo her books are notoriously difficult to film (Persuasion, Mansfield Park), Emma adaptations are always fun. Each version has its strengths, and we could argue all day about who played Emma and Mr. Knightley best, but I think that this play’s Harriet Smith (Dani Marcus) is probably the best version of the character I have seen. She carries the weight of the comedy in the play, a task in which she is only supported by Mr. Woodhouse (sadly, Miss Bates and Mrs. Elton are decidedly not funny in this rendition of the tale). The song she sings at the ball at the Crown, “Humiliation,” is the strongest in the entire show and captures the moment amazingly. Austen does not let us see inside Harriet’s head as she is snubbed by Mr. Elton, but such moments of introspection are quintessential to her writing, and this scene works perfectly. I wish I could find a clip of it to share. It’s so good that even the actors on stage burst into spontaneous applause (ok, they’re applauding the end of the dance set, but when deprived of audience participation it really feels like this is Harriet getting her just recognition). Unfortunately, we’ll have to make do with the audio and some screen shots:
As was the case with Pride & Prejudice, I really feel like Gordon’s emotions towards Austen’s characters are pretty clearly conveyed. As much as his impatience with and possible hatred for Emma is apparent, so is his sympathy for the plights of Harriet and Jane Fairfax. The latter is played beautifully by Sharon Rietkerk, now a familiar face to me, as she was also a wonderful Jane Bennet in Pride & Prejudice. Marcus is also in both productions, though she has much more opportunity to shine here than as Charlotte Lucas. Brian Herndon, who portrays Mr. Elton, is also in both productions, making a study of Austen’s bumbling rectors. I liked him better here than as Mr. Collins (no fault of the actor’s), but again I feel like the comic nature of the role was wasted. I don’t think I caught a single, “Exactly so.” He comes off as far more pitiable than detestable, especially once we meet Mrs. Elton (Caitlin Brooke). Whew! She is perfectly vile, even by the book’s standards. The residents of Highbury are open in their disdain for her, though she is too obtuse to perceive it. In that capacity – as a target for the wit of others – I suppose she does add her mite of farce, but I really feel Mrs. Elton can hold her own as a comic creation. She has ample resources, and they were not utilized. It’s a shame.
This brings me to one of the best lines accorded Mr. Woodhouse (Richert Easley), who turns to Mr. Knightley in the middle of Emma’s party in honor of the new bride to say loudly, “Ghastly woman. Who invited her?” I really love the character of Mr. Woodhouse, and have always held Donald Eccles performance in the 1972 BBC mini-series to be the gold standard. In this version, he seems more senile than frail, which I find a bit irksome, but mostly I think it is the current health situation that makes the performance fall flat. One of his first proclamations is, “We shall all die of colds.” It’s clearly supposed to be funny, and maybe it was, but right now it smarts. This is the fault of no one, but nonetheless true.
I also wasn’t overwhelmed by Will Reynolds as Frank Churchill. He looked perfect: very dapper. There was just a lack of charisma in his portrayal. He’s handsomer than Mr. Knightley, but I wouldn’t spare a glance for poor Frank while the latter was in the room. Maybe that was the point?
I really enjoyed Don Richard as Mr. Weston. He has such a warm presence, perfectly suited to the characterisation in the book. Pamela Winslow Kashani plays Mrs. Weston, also very believably. They are one of the best couples in Austen, and this portrayal does them great justice.
I found Lauren Cohn a convincing Miss Bates, but I didn’t like how the character was scripted. First of all, she didn’t speak enough, and what she did say was devoid of all those hints and clues that make her long, rambling speeches so important to Austen’s plot. She was mostly there as Jane’s aunt and someone for Emma to insult, occasionally bellowing at her mother (also Caitlin Brooke) a la Sophie Thompson in the 1996 Douglas McGrath film. This portrayal of the deaf is not terribly sensitive, and had best be left in the past. I don’t know why they bothered to even include Mrs. Bates as her glasses never break, so her presence is entirely irrelevant.
Let us not neglect Adam Daveline as Mr. Robert Martin, who has a larger role than usual. I could totally see why Harriet likes him so much, and she is less wavering in her admiration than she is in the book. Daveline also stands in as various background characters, including as the waiter at the ball, where he has a moment of pure comic brilliance, conveyed without saying a word and utilising minimal gestures. Watch him as Emma nervously shovels food in her face. It’s great.
Harriet’s pretty constant devotion to Mr. Martin, coupled with his quiet appeal, makes Emma’s interference in their relationship even more heinous than usual. I really do feel Gordon intentionally made the lead role a lot less sympathetic than she typically is. While it irritates me and I feel defensive on Miss Woodhouse’s behalf, it is clear that Gordon knows his Austen and cares deeply about the characters and texts. Just like the JAFF authors I admire, I don’t always have to agree with their interpretations of the books and characters, and as long as I feel like their decision making is based in real affection for the works, I am pretty openminded. So while I do disagree with some of the character interpretations in this play, I want to emphasise how much I enjoyed it overall. It was wonderful, and I think I liked Pride & Prejudice even better. I feel the need to state this very plainly, because I know I’ve piled a lot of criticism on both productions (I was a critic long before I was an author), and some of the comments on the last post suggest I gave the impression that I did not like it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I highly recommend both productions to all Janeites and theater lovers alike, especially as purchasing filmed theatrical productions is a great way to throw some support behind an industry in sore need of it. Nonetheless, like a lot of theater goers, I find half the fun lies in the critique and resulting debate, so please forgive me as I indulge. I am eagerly anticipating streaming Gordon’s next play, Sense and Sensibility, at the end of the year, and then analysing the heck out of it.
Until then, enjoy some more images from Emma. My best wishes to you all as we continue to weather this extraordinary situation.