By Jane Austen, adapted by Tim Luscombe.  Genesian Theatre Company, Sydney.  June 29 – August 17, 2019

Reviewed : 5 July 2019

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Persuading an audience to imagine a performance taking place in a series of different places across the English countryside in the eighteenth century is difficult enough if you have a revolving stage with multiple sets. To do so on a small stage with restricted wing space and a cast of twelve performers is even harder – unless you have someone who can manipulate the audience’s belief with creative sound and lighting. Someone like Mehran Mortezaei.

On a minimalist set, Mortezaei uses technology – and the power of suggestion – to take director Trudie Ritchie’s audience through a plethora of scenes in this game effort to bring Jane Austen’s moralistic story to the stage. Booming cannons and smoky haze through low light set the initial scene of a battle at sea. Birdsong evokes the summer countryside. The sound of clip-clopping horses carries the characters to the seaside, where only the sound of crashing waves changes the scene.

Actors re-set the few pieces of furniture during breaks of scenes, and skilfully designed lighting allows them to move from a family gathering on one part of the stage, to an intimate encounter on a walk in a garden on another.

Mortezaei’s clever technical enhancement, and the costumes designed by Susan Carveth, take the audience back to the society portrayed by Jane Austen in her novel and adapted for the stage by Tim Luscombe. The novel is long, the characters many, all of which are described with Austen’s cynically perceptive eye. In bringing them to the stage Luscombe reduces them almost to caricatures, but does sustain Austen’s social censure.

The story revolves around the Elliot family. Walter Elliot, his three daughters and their friends present a picture of a patriarchal society where money reigns and parents vie for men of monetary rank for their daughters – who are advised against marrying for love. The heroine, Anne Elliot, has spent eight years regretting being persuaded to take that advice rather than allowing her heart to be won by the dashing naval captain, Charles Wentworth.

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Rose Treloar’s subtle depiction of Anne gives a more contemporary insight into Austen’s character. Her wry smile and perceptive rejection of advice – and advances –  epitomise the ‘wiser women’ of the time. Angela Johnston and Natasha McDonald play her more selfish and indulged sisters, and Tom Massey her blustering father. The suffering but aloof Wentworth, is played by Kendall Drury.

Jodie Sibley plays Lady Russell, Anne’s mentor, whose original ‘sage’ advice almost lost Anne her man – and Charlotte Robertson plays Louisa Musgrove, the simpering young woman who almost wins him away from her.

Adapting a novel with so many characters – there are 16 in this production – and one that represents so many of the social customs of the time is always difficult. This is a brave attempt, and Ritchie and her cast – with the help of their creative designers – do their best to bring it to life.

First published in Stage Whispers Magazine