Persuasion: Royal Exchange

I am a massive Jane Austen nerd. I’ve read all her books at least once, I’ve made pilgrimages to Bath, Chawton and Winchester Cathedral and I’ve positively inhaled every film and TV adaptation that’s come my way.

So I was very excited when the Royal Exchange released their brochure for this season, and saw that the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death was being marked by a brand new stage production of her novel Persuasion. 

It was made clear from the outset that anyone expecting bonnets, candle light and carriages would be very disappointed. In Jeff James’ production, all the familiar costume drama trappings are stripped away, and we are presented with a bizarre fusion of modern costumes, music and set with Austen’s plot, characters and conventions.

Jeff James and James Yeatman deserve credit for managing to distil the events of the book into a modest run time, helped by scenes that elide into each other (and cutting out all that time-consuming curtseying). The script draws on speech from the book, but the majority of the characters’ dialogue is new material, which flits between imitation Austen and jarringly modern phrases. The romance of the final scene, when Captain Wentworth confesses his love for Anne via letter (quoted directly from the book, hurrah!), is somewhat undermined by their subsequent mutual outbursts of “I love you” and “I want you” – as if we hadn’t realised that already.

All of the characters feel fresh and contemporary, yet they are recognisable under their wigs, sportswear and raincoats. Henrietta and Louisa are giggly, giddy clones; Mary and Charles Musgrove bicker in comically recognisable fashion; there’s more than a whiff of Hugh Hefner about Walter Elliot. The only exception is the heroine – Anne Elliot (Lara Rossi) is too curt with other characters, too bitter about her past hurt. All subtlety is lost in an attempt to make her modern and identifiable.

Above all, this production is entertaining – like the rest of the audience, I was laughing for most of it. But the thing is, Persuasion isn’t really a funny book. It doesn’t have the sharp satire or ridiculous caricatures of Pride and Prejudice or Emma. It’s a poignant tale of lost and found love, but this production drags it determinedly in another direction.

New dialogue pokes fun at Austen’s world (“I have to get married!!” shrieks Elizabeth hysterically. “Lyme is 17 miles away!” protests Mary), while Louisa’s accident – both a turning point in the plot and a rare moment of serious peril for Austen – is made ridiculous when she has some kind of red sauce squeezed over her body.

Persuasion is bold and different, yes, but the main problem with it is that style takes precedence over substance. Everything about the staging is distracting – from the pointlessly swivelling catwalk stage and headline-grabbing foam party, to the club soundtrack that at points the cast can’t be heard over properly. It doesn’t compliment the story and just seems like a rather cringey attempt to be down with the kids.

I’m fully aware that practically every mainstream theatre reviewer has given it four stars, and am quite content to be consigned to the corner with the other Jane Austen snobs.

Bonnets, not bikinis.

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