Sunday 4 June 2017

Persuasion – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 01/06/17]

It does say something about the state of British Theatre, that the headline for every review of Jeff James and James Yeatman’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion has to be something along the lines of “Ooh! Look! No bonnets!” I wish I could claim it had anything to do with a lack of imagination on the part of the critics, but no; the sad fact of the matter is that dumb, chocolate-box, historical costume drama is still very much the rule of British theatre when it comes to literary adaptations. But, yes, in line with the higher intellectual standards of the mainland, this version of Persuasion is performed in nicely observed, mildly satirical modern dress.

Similarly, the staging avoids literalism: Alex Lowde – already a shoo-in for designer of the year when Pygmalion is also taken into account – has designed a large white box, on two levels, with a strip of light running round the middle. Unexpectedly [unless you’re reading this review before seeing the show], this – twice – literally shifts on its axis at key emotional moments in heroine Ann Elliot’s life, creating an ongoing, jagged, abstract shape which the performers are forced to negotiate their way around. It works beautifully.

Where the costuming avoids cliché, and the set side-steps stupidity, the “script” is perhaps even cleverer still. Ostensibly, the plot/story of the novel is mostly intact – minor subplot-character Mrs Clay has been written out, so that Elizabeth Elliot ends up marrying her second cousin, William Elliot, which – arguably, heretically – feels more dramatically satisfying than the assumed resolution of Austen’s novel (unfinished when she died, aged 41, 200 years ago). James and Yeatman have created something that feels almost like a completely workable blank slate. Because it’s so deftly done, and so unshowily inhabited – and because it’s Very Funny – the show gets to operate on multiple levels simultaneously.

Obviously, there is a spectre haunting the show, the spectre of the bourgeoisie. James Varney covers all the most immediate objections in his review, here. And on one level, of course he’s right – while the cast here give a fine account of Manchester/England’s multiracial society, in theory they’re “playing” fictional white characters. Except are they? The possibility of believing this has been made available (although more for the benefit of conservative Austen fans, than for Marxist-Leninists, I’d have thought). At the same time, the performers are quite clearly themselves. They are speaking and dancing in the room, in real time, with their actual bodies, and to music* we can also hear. That’s not nothing, and to dismiss it out of hand is disingenuous. In fact, the politics of the piece – looked at theatrically – are fascinating.

I have a slightly unfair advantage/disadvantage, writing this review, as I interviewed James (Jeff James, the director) for The Stage [published in next week’s edition] before I went to Berlin. Disadvantage, because I’ve had far too long to dwell on far too few things that he could say about the production in a wide-ranging, short chat; and these ended up really informing how I watched it. One was: “the principal way that a director can create meaning on stage is the positions of the various actors in relation to each other.” Which is the first time I remember hearing something so fundamental/obvious articulated with such simple clarity. As a result, I don’t think I’ve ever paid so much attention to where actors have stood, how they’ve stood, how they’ve moved. But it’s an unconventional effort that repays your attention. There’s a kind of feline fluidity in the thinking. No mean feat, when a director manages to place actors around a space, who – presumably – *read* as clearly from every seat in the in-the-round house, as they did to my randomly assigned seat.

The other thing that rattled round my head was: “[the novel] feels very relevant to life now; the questions her characters are asking: how should you organise your life? How do you balance these dangerously competing demands of family, sex, money, and craft a life out of it that doesn’t contain inconsistencies that will destroy you?” which, on one hand, I admit I worried about – my life really doesn’t relate to a Jane Austen novel. But when you look at the way James frames the concerns of the novel; those are basic, relatable, human concerns he’s specifically talking about. There’s a stripping back here, an understanding of the basic patterns underlying the surface of the dialogue, that more recalls Rob Icke’s Hamlet, van Hove’s AVFTB, or Nübling’s Three Kingdoms. Or Simon Stephens’s suggestion that “language is noise”.

There’s also another couple of things that he said, which, having now seen the production, I think I understand far more fully: “...the way the adaptation works is really focussing on what I find interesting and powerful about the novel, and in some way reflecting my experience of reading the novel in the production I’m making.” I think this is crucial. I didn’t notice/fully-understand it when James said it – to the extent that that quote is not included in the published interview – but thinking about it now, with the advantage of having seen the show, that idea about the adaptation being a reflection of the experience of reading the novel now, and relating to characters in the novel now – perhaps even in spite of yourself – seems key. I think the production asks questions of its audience about what they think it means to be watching Persuasion in Manchester in 2017. (Indeed, I believe it was this production’s provocative aspects that provoked James Varney’s review in a way that something completely trad. just wouldn’t have done. Interesting, no? ) Also relevant: “I wasn’t interested in updating it or locating it in the present day, because that feels like the jostle between how I live my life and how this character’s living their life is eradicated and it becomes less interesting. If you find an analogous modern situation you’ve flattened that out, potentially.”

These twin ideas – the jostle between then and now and the reflection of an experience of reading the novel – are what shield the actual production from the bluntness of Varney’s criticisms. The production, after all, doesn’t command us to sympathise with any of the characters – it simply places performers “playing” the characters, bourgeois-warts‘n’all, on the stage, and shows us [some of] the situations that the characters in the novel have to negotiate. The stage language used to advance the idea that these situations are taking place at all is delicate; like a fraught, tense negotiation. Which is, after all, what it is. This isn’t theatre that commandeers an audience with pretence and/or misdirection. Instead, I think it’s actually rather subtle in continually asking us if we think it’s ok; offering us a commentary on that as well; and continually reflecting the fact that the performance *is* happening now. And these actors *are* on the stage in front of us. And Jane Austen’s Persuasion *doesn’t* just go away if we pretend it doesn’t exist, any more than a ruling class, or poverty, or war do. (Although it seems reasonable to say The Napoleonic Wars pretty much *have* gone now – even if the street signs of London and Manchester tell a different story).

So, yes, rather than necessarily, uncomplicatedly celebrating a 200-year-old novel – which, sure, could arguably have been yet more acidly critical about the very existence of an aristocracy (and I can’t help feeling that might be some of what the novel itself is driving at) – the production more notes that the novel existed, and that it had the characters that it did, and made the frosty observations that it made, and had the plot that it had, and asks us what it means to be watching that today, in a world that we think of as having abandoned the majority of its social mores; perhaps in fact leading us to precisely the sort of reflections contained in Varney’s review, because of the way this piece has been made.

BUT – because what I’ve said so far makes it sound like a bone-dry seminar – it’s worth noting that while those aspects of the piece operate incredibly subtly, there is also a lot of fun to be had with/on the surface (which isn’t to say that the humour is entirely superficial). But if some people choose to stop there, I reckon that’s fine. This is a hugely intelligent, multi-level deconstruction of the book, which also it puts it back together enough for people wanting some progressive, escapist fun to have it.

It is worth admitting that Jeff James has spent the last three years assisting Ivo van Hove, not Frank Castorf (while Yeatman has been kicking around in a similar way with Simon McBurney). By any normal standards, this is an exceptional show to see in an English theatre – all the more exceptional for having been made by someone English, rather than an imported European. No, it’s not Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau! (Castorf’s Marxist destruction of Chekhov’s Three Sisters – essentially; *exactly* the show Varney seem to wish this had been) But then, it hasn’t tried to be. James, perhaps in common with van Hove, seems here more interested in not alienating an audience with an overt political statement. And yet, through the piece’s paradoxes, it’s perhaps all the more interesting for not telling us what to think with dumb slogans (not that Castorf does that either, but...).

For example, what are we to make of the – clearly deliberate – parallels between Mrs Russell’s advice to the vain, almost bankrupt Baron about cutting back on servants, and George Osborne’s ill-fated “austerity” measures? And what to make of them particularly in a (slightly) state-funded theatre. There’s no comfortable or cosy parallel. Instead, there’s just this strange reminder of the world we live in, and a disconcerting echo of one situation in another. And perhaps that’s also how much of the rest works. Some specifics become meaningless in the real/modern world, or else we choose to transpose them into meaning other things. If anything, this is a piece about readers in a world of unmoored signifiers. Do performers mean themselves, or a character? Does the stage mean the place claimed, or the stage itself? How much of “both at once” can the mind hold concurrently?

Perhaps what’s most exciting of all, politically, is that the piece a) doesn’t try to tell us what to think (hallelujah – isn’t that what we “progressives” have been pleading for, for, like, forever?), and b) the performance/production/adaptation isn’t pleading “relevance” and then forever trying to underline this alleged/crow-barred “relevance” with awful, on-the-nose, nudge-nudge costumes or “parallels”.

All of which argument has rather stopped me talking about what the actual show is actually like. As is common with shows that introduce some level of [what, in this country, could be called] formal experimentation, the temptation is to focus on the director and their ideas. What is increasingly interesting to me (indebted to the work of Holger Syme here), is the extent to which this sort of “directors’/designers theatre” actually makes the actor/performer far more central than work in which the director claims to be invisible. Leading to that great problem-of-criticism; writing about acting.

Lara Rossi’s Ann is a fascinating study of where contemporary British acting is at. On one level, it feels low-key, naturalistic, almost muted. The actors wear radio mics, which – although I couldn’t tell you if they’re switched on when there isn’t music playing – I guess allows for a level of complete normality in terms of tone-of-voice. At the same time, there’s doesn’t seem to be either a Stanislavskian imperative to ignore the existence of the audience when in the world of the play, nor that horrible Lecoq-led compulsion to always be mugging at them. It’s silly to single Rossi out, though. In this tight ensemble cast, there isn’t a weak link, with everyone except Rossi playing at least two roles. The ensemble feels like it does a good job of being representative of what modern society looks like, and without – thank God, at last – feeling like the production believes it deserves a pat on the head for having done so. It’s modernity works because it actually feels modern, rather than politically correct. But more than this, every single actor seems to be inhabiting their character so fully, that they’re interesting to watch even when they’re not the focus of attention, and – going back to the main theme of the thing, which I seem to keep understating – also, incredibly funny.

*It’s also got an outstanding soundtrack with a huge pile of contemporary music (Frank Ocean, mostly, apparently) mixed and designed by Ben and Max Ringham (also Pygmalion, and a bunch of other stuff, including Atmen), which – for once – derailed my usual UK theatre objection that everything would have been much improved for some Joy Division/Suicide/Throbbing Gristle.

So, yeah. To conclude this hideously rambling 2,000-word mess: Persuasion at the Manchester Royal Exchange is an exciting, intelligent, hugely watchable bit of contemporary theatre. A very English take on being European, and one with more genuine, tangible popular appeal than a whole country-load of worthy, traditionalist, costume dramas that are theoretically “what the people want”.

Oh, and Morgann Runacre-Temple’s “movement”/choreography pisses over almost all other UK theatre “movement” from such a great height it’s not even funny**.

And there’s a bit with foam that’s great too.


** honourable exception for Sasha Milavic-Davies’s work for Suppliant Women.

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