Mansfield Park is opened up for Bury’s theatre audiences

Jane Austen, the darling of Georgian culture, is being reunited with Suffolk audiences this week, on stage at Bury St Edmunds’ Theatre Royal – the country’s last surviving Regency playhouse.

Mansfield Park will be the swansong of outgoing artistic director Colin Blumenau, the man who has masterminded not only the theatre’s �5.3 million restoration but has also pioneered its Restoring The Repertoire programme, which seeks to put long-forgotten Georgian plays back on stage.

One of Colin’s greatest successes has been the discovery of Suffolk-born playwright Elizabeth Inchbald, who was an important figure in Regency theatre. She was raised in Stanningfield, just outside Bury St Edmunds, before moving to London to pursue an acting career. But it is as a playwright that she is best remembered.

Her stature was such that Austen included her play Lovers’ Vows in Mansfield Park. Scenes from the play are also included in Bury’s stage version and Colin will be hosting a rehearsed reading of Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows during the run.

For Colin, it is the exuberance of the period and the strong roles played by women that draw him back to Georgian theatre.

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“Women were far more able to go out and interact with the world during the Regency period than they were during the Victorian era. The Victorians reacted to the decadence of the Regency and it was the women who suffered. The Regency was a very decadent period and what we get now is a well-manicured view of impossibly beautiful women riding across impossibly beautiful parks on impossibly beautiful white horses, and obviously that’s not the reality.

“It’s fascinating stuff doing period work because there’s always a bit of you that goes ‘was it really like that?’ I always start every play or adaptation with that question to myself – “What was it like?” The problem with the manicured productions is that they pretend that people lived incredibly different lives, living by a different moral code, but there was alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies – all of those things were endemic and right through all the social classes. So there was a seamier underbelly.

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“Communications were not good and people behaved in the most extraordinary and dissolute ways.

“This is what Hogarth picked up on. His print of Gin Alley and various others were a social commentary on society as he saw it. The cartoonists of the time weren’t being excessive; they were highlighting the problems as they saw them.

“Hogarth, Rowlandson and Cruikshanks had a vein of particularly rich material with which to work and Austen does the same, but she sets her stories in a privileged part of society.”

He said it has been a joy to direct a show which he hasn’t also written. This adaptation has been created by Tim Luscombe, who has previously put Northanger Abbey and Persuasion on stage.

Colin says Luscombe’s strength as a playwright is that he has the ability to preserve the flavour of the novel even though so much of the original prose has to be dispensed with during the transfer.

“It’s great to be working with someone who has done it before and is also an expert at adapting Jane Austen. He has stayed absolutely true to the intent behind the book, which is both painful and funny in equal measure. The other thing which I think he has done so beautifully is take the heroine, Fanny Price, and create a really strong individual – someone who belies the reputation of the character in the book – who some people have, wrongly I feel, described as rather monochrome and dull.”

He said some people have described transferring Jane Austen from the page to the stage as daunting, but Colin is not so sure that’s true.

“I don’t think that reducing a wordy novel down to a play is any more daunting in terms of production than any other play. I certainly haven’t felt the weight of history on my shoulders.

“With a well-loved book, people have this very tangible sense of expectation because people cherish their version of the book – the one that exists in their mind’s eye.

“But, I think there is more room, more freedom to adapt the story, than you would suppose, because you are moving from one idiom to another. You are not recreating the novel – you are creating a play. And, when you are addressing any play, somebody, somewhere, will have their own particular view of it.

“So in my head the true Midsummer Night’s Dream is always the Peter Brook version and yet I am still delighted by other people doing it in different ways.”

For both Colin and Tim it’s the story and being faithful to the characters which have been their over-riding concerns in adapting the book for the stage. They both believe they have a responsibility not only to Austen but to everyone who treasures the book.

He says obviously they can’t include everything that’s in the novel – not only because of running time but also because a stage play is a different beast – but they have been careful to keep the colour and the atmosphere of Austen’s work.

“We haven’t done anything outrageous with Mansfield Park. It’s really about getting under the skin of the characters, under the skin of the story.

“Obviously the narrative is very important. It’s a story. Jane Austen’s great swathe of descriptive writing has gone into the creation of the characters and a lot of that has been absorbed by the actors.

“The other thing we have tried to do is inform ourselves about the context of when the book was written and when the story was set. I spent a little time talking to the actors about life at the time of The Regency – it is obviously something I know a little bit about – and just trying to underpin the production with authenticity.

“I haven’t slanted the production in any particular way except, and this has become something of a theme for me, towards the enfranchisement of women – which is absolutely central to the development of Fanny Price.

“She’s the one character in the whole of the book, and the play, who retains her integrity throughout. She’s moral, she’s strongly protective of her morality and in the play her strong opinions are defined by the strength of her character. She is a strong, opinionated character – in a good way – and Ffion Jolly, the actress playing her, has a quiet strength. There’s no sense of her being prudish, there’s no sense of her being a prig and she’s certainly not wet. So I am really pleased with that. There’s a strong moral, central compass for all the rest of the hypocrisy to bounce off. Every other character is a hypocrite at some point in the proceedings. She never is.”

As Colin speaks you get the sense that he forms a real attachment to the heroes and heroines of his works. This is also apparent in other work he writes and directs. He’s a real champion for his subjects.

As with his work on Elizabeth Inchbald, he admires Austen’s forthright nature and the way that she presented an honest portrayal of women. They are not wilting wallflowers but neither are they controlling harridans. They are normal, resourceful individuals, which is why they have survived the test of time.

“Austen is a great writer, partly because she presents us with these strong women, but she is not pretending they are perfect. They are strong women but they are also flawed characters. They have their faults and flaws and she is not afraid to show that. I first read Austen when I was a teenager and I have just come back to her to do this play and I am delighted by what I have rediscovered about her.

“I love the fact that she is honest in her writing. She doesn’t hold up anyone as a paragon of virtue because she knows that there is no such thing. Even Fanny has moments of doubt and moments of temptation – which she does ultimately overcome.

“I think where Austen is so brilliant is that she manages to layer each of her characters with reality. But you have to remember that Austen is not working in isolation. She comes from a long line of female writers from the period. She is writing 30 years after Wollstonecraft and she has all that heritage to rely on.”

Colin is also happy to tip his hat to his own re-discovery. “Elizabeth Inchbald figures quite heavily in this play and we re-enact some of the rehearsals for Lovers’ Vows, which is lovely because you get the authentic playwright’s voice in this play and that has a nice local resonance as well.”

The local resonance will be increased by staging the play in Bury’s restored Georgian playhouse. The atmosphere from the building will add to the staging, which Colin says is deliberately being kept very simple.

“Mansfield Park moves quickly from scene to scene. One minute you can be in London, the next you are in Portsmouth – it’s all very seamless and we keep the play moving, doing it as a quickly as we can. There are no big scene changes – there is one static set.

“It’s impossible to show everywhere we need to go realistically but I love what we have got. It allows us to be as fluid as possible but, at the same time, as soon as people sit down and see our sets they will go: ‘Oh yes, this is The Regency.’

“It conjures up that sense of place and time. Also, everything about it – Kit Surrey’s set, the costumes, the music and the dancing – is all period, so you know exactly what you are dealing with. When we did Wives As They Were we just used seven or eight glass boxes. The audience enjoy using their imaginations.”

Now that Mansfield Park is onstage, Colin begins his new life as a writer and director for hire. His first job is writing Bury’s panto, Rapunzel, which Colin believes is ripe for panto treatment. Then he’s hoping to team up with local actor/director/producer Matthew Townshend and musician Neil Innes to develop a new musical play, The Rake’s Return, which will again take him into Regency London, this time interpreting the satirical world created by Hogarth.

“I have a meeting with Matthew and Neil next month. It’s a great play. I haven’t heard the music yet but I am sure that Neil will do something interesting with it. The idea of having a go at that is very exciting.

“I’m also looking at writing a new musical with Peter White, who has written a number of scores for panto here. We’re starting work in October and it’s best described as a ghost-thriller-musical set in a late 18th century-like house. It will have bags of atmosphere.

“We’ve already written a bit and I really like the way it feels. I like the sense of mystery. I have been reading a lot of books about the sea and wreckers – the people who were reputed to show false lights to lure ships onto the rocks where they would founder. It’s also set around the time when the slave trade was being abolished, so it’s starting to form itself around those issues.”

He said that although he loved Regency theatre he didn’t want to be limited by it in other people’s eyes – simply because there wasn’t a great number of theatres looking to stage Regency work.

• Mansfield Park, adapted by Tim Luscombe and directed by Colin Blumenau, is at Bury Theatre Royal until September 29.

There will be a rehearsed reading of Lovers’ Vows, by Elizabeth Inchbald, performed by the Mansfield Park cast on September 24.

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