Fluellen Theatre present a new play, written by Francis Hardy, about the life of successful 19th century novelist Jane Austen.
With a cast of one, director Peter Richards makes the most of the stage space, bringing to life stories, memories and colourful characterisations of Austen’s life during the 80 minute production.
Set in the Arts Wing, at the very top of the building, the small room provides an intimate setting. The audience surround the stage as guests in the drawing room of Jane’s home in Chawton Cottage Hampshire which she shared with her mother and sister Cassandra. It’s 21st January 1814, the day that Jane began writing what would become her fourth published novel, Emma. She finished Emma in March 1915 just before Mansfield Park was published. Two years later she died, leaving unfinished works behind, and a blank space in the new age of women’s literature.
The set is complete with colourful furniture and furnishings of the period. A writing desk at the far end of the stage, where Jane later sits and writes with a feather quill and ink, pulling books and papers from its open drawers to immerse us in her world of fiction.
Emma Macnab is an excitable, witty and intelligent Jane. Beauty and warmth radiates from her as she speaks. Dressed in a lilac gown with purple ribbon and white bonnet, she gracefully moves around the stage, connecting with her audience like an old friend. When they laugh at her witticisms she nods and gestures to them in agreement. Macnab does well to hold the audience’s interest and to remember the wealth of information she must deliver.
She begins by talking about the importance of her family and introducing us to them by showing us their portraits and providing insights into their characters. Her love and admiration for her siblings and parents is played out beautifully.
We are taken from her early days growing up with her family in Hampshire, writing plays and performing them with her sister and brothers. On stage she jumps from one character to another, projecting bold, pompous voices. She talks of her father’s vast collection of books and her fortune to be able to read authors such as Henry Fielding who were considered rather shocking at the time. She also loved the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, which later influenced her own gothic novel Northanger Abbey.
Then to more sombre times, when she was sent away to school with her sister Cassandra and they both became very ill and had to return home. The dramatic passing of her sister’s husband and Cassandra’s refusal to wallow in grief for him.
Her recollection of her second school mistress madame La Tournelle, amuses her. She notes, La Tournelle had no link to France at all, a cork leg and a passion for drama. During moments like this Macnab’s comedic acting skills are apparent. We share in her private jokes, of unmatched suitors, social misunderstandings and even dismissal of her books at first sight as ‘rubbish’ by a female friend unaware of the author. We laugh with her at the trappings of society and the follies of others. She is immensely likeable and observant. Her face too is a canvas for expression.
The most compelling moment of the play comes at the very end. The side stage lighting is lowered to spotlight. Jane reveals that once, when she was being painted by her sister Cassandra, she thought back to a family trip to Sidmouth, and the man who asked to meet her again but whose death they were later informed of by letter. This powerful portrayal of the loss of a possibility, captures the beating heart behind Jane and her literary works. The watercolour of Jane, by her sister Cassandra hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and has been the subject of much discussion among critics over the years.
Lighting (Chris) and sound (Will Davies) is kept simple not interfering with the main focus of the production. Period music is only used for brief interludes, or to establish the scene. An interval might have been welcomed, to break up the barrage of information, but where it would have fitted in the short production, I’m not sure.
There’s remarkable pleasure in hearing Austen’s words being read on stage, the infamous opening lines of pride and prejudice, the witticisms of sense and sensibility and poignant scenes of Mansfield park. It transports us back into a world so far removed from the theatre.
Francis Hardy and Peter Richards provide us with an unique opportunity to see Jane Austen as she was. At home, among family and friends, to hear first hand accounts of her world, her writing and her successes. Emma Mcnab does a wonderful job in bringing their realisation to life.
Jane is also showing in The Grand Pavilion, Porthcawl on 19th July.