Jane Austen creates timeless world for Bury Theatre’s production of Northanger Abbey
- Credit: Archant
This year sees the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death and yet this Georgian author remains more popular than ever. Arts editor Andrew Clarke talks to director Karen Simpson about what makes her so modern while Liz Nice argues that Austen gives women a rose-tinted view of life.
Jane Austen may be celebrating her 200th anniversary this year but for Karen Simpson, artistic director of Bury Theatre Royal, she remains an author as lively and as perceptive as any living woman writer.
Karen is currently directing a new adaptation of Northanger Abbey, Austen’s first completed novel but only published posthumously. It’s a satire of the Gothic novels enjoyed by Georgian society at the time that Austen was writing, but, like so much of Austen’s work, the real joy of her work and the key to her continued popularity is not to be found just in the narrative but in the fact that Jane Austen was a great observer of humanity and she wrote about timeless human traits with wit, humour and clarity.
She invested these foibles and failings in a recognisable community of people with which she populated her stories, so when people comes to her stories today, although they are set 200 years ago, the people and the situations they encounter are undoubtedly modern.
This latest production, Northanger Abbey, has been adapted for the stage by playwright Tim Luscombe, who previously adapted Mansfield Park for Bury Theatre Royal. Luscombe knows Austen and her world inside out and for Karen Simpson he is a master at condensing a vast novel into a contained stage narrative while keeping the essence of the story, the characters and the feel of the original novel.
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“I also wanted it to feel that it was a contemporary play. I wanted it to have a sense of vitality about it. I didn’t want it to be a languid affair,” says Karen. “I wanted the audience to be swept up in the action and carried along by the story. I wanted everyone to blink and realise it was the interval, blink again and it was the end of the evening and two-and-a-half hours had disappeared in an instant.
“If you are involved in a story, time does disappear like that because so much is happening. Once the play starts I don’t it to stop for anything. The scene changes are part of the action, the transitions are covered by music, written by Matthew Bugg who did Miss Nightingale here and at The New Wolsey, who is a tremendous talent and the music helps advance the story by reflecting the action and also creates atmosphere, so you know when and where you are.”
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She adds that her job as a director was made much easier by Tim Luscombe’s very literate script. “It’s all here. I have just have to interpret it. Tim is a great stage technician and he will help you side-step possible problems because he has so carefully mapped everything out in the script.
“The script had me from the moment I started reading it because it had such energy. Northanger Abbey was always the most theatrical of the novels because it is a satire on the reading habits of her contemporaries.
“What I love about it, is that the central heroine, Catherine Morland, is not the demure young thing that you expect of the period, she’s a fun character. She’s slightly silly, she gets things wrong, she’s quite dramatic, like a modern young teenage girl, and Tim has carefully balanced comedy with tragedy and you get both in equal measure. But, because this is a satire the tragedy is so tragic that it cleverly tips over into comedy again. You can only do that if you have a writer as good as Tim Luscombe who really understands both the nature of theatre and of the world of Jane Austen.”
She says that even though the play is a heavily condensed version of the novel, Luscombe allows Austen to have a voice through the characters she has created, “The characters in any Jane Austen novel, from Catherine Morland to Elizabeth Bennett to Emma and Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, offers us a glimpse of Austen herself and of other real women because Austen wrote about people she knew and encountered.
“These are real women brought to a page by a skilled woman writer who knew and understood these people. That is why her books have not only survived but they are still so well loved. She understands their psyche.
“Austen creates well-drawn characters. They are beautifully drawn. You get so much information, wonderfully observed information that it is very easy to make the characters live on the stage as easily as they do on the page.
“As a director I am not really interested in period pieces. I like modern writing, new writing and this feels like a modern work to me. It’s about people I understand and recognise. We are staging this as we would stage a modern play. It’s a world away from being stiff and starching. It’s fast and its fun. It’s got plenty of energy and that’s what excites me. It’s got something to say to audiences today and that is what makes it a modern play and what makes Jane Austen a modern writer.”
Karen says that the secret of the success of female writers like Austen, the Bronte sisters and George Elliot, probably lay in the fact that they were writers who lived outside London and because of their good education could write authoritatively about people and things that they were interested in.
“They write about different types of women in different situations but the one thing that binds them together is that they write about women in a way that is not defined by men. This is a woman’s view of the world and that’s very unusual, particularly for that time.”
Northanger Abbey adapted by Tim Luscombe from a novel by Jane Austen is at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds until February 11 and then embarks on a UK tour which takes in the New Wolsey, Ipswich from May 2-6.
Liz Nice on Jane Austen
I can still remember the first time I read Pride and Prejudice.
How much I loved it.
How much it made me laugh.
“A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”
Was ever a truer sentence uttered about the female mind in matters of the heart?
It remains are true now as it was then, which is quite depressing after a century or so of feminism.
Women may not need a man financially any more, but it certainly helps!
When I was a sixth form teacher, I used to chew my fist in despair at how many of my female students still declared their ambition to be to ‘marry a rich man’.
Yet, who can blame them?
The lot of a working mother is hard, I can testify, and even I have been known to occasionally long for someone to come along and carry me off to Pemberley.
This is unlikely to occur however, and in my experience men who carry on in the gruff, uncommunicative way of Darcy are probably not the best choice of husbands.
The poor man is emotionally retarded, and no doubt after he and Lizzy finally married, she despaired of a lack of conversation while he sat behind his newspaper and stared moodily out of the window.
Nonetheless, thanks to Jane Austen, he remains the ultimate female fantasy – the buttoned up man who needs but one tug from you and the whole lot comes off (somebody pass my smelling salts).
With this, Jane Austen has done us no favours. Or as the actress Sue Johnston put it in an interview at the weekend:
“I fell in love with Mr Darcy (at 14) but it ruined things because I spent the rest of my life looking (for him) and never found him.”
Cue more fist chewing from me because it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a copy of Pride and Prejudice will always be in want of any sense at all when it comes to the reality of life.