Years ago, when I was working as a freelance journalist for a national newspaper, I was sent to Bath to report on the annual Jane Austen Festival.
I have always loved Jane Austen, you see, and my editor thought I would have had the best time in bonnet and gloves interviewing the attendees on what turned out to be a very warm day; he was not wrong. It was a brilliant day and as I chatted away with the devoting mass that had flown into Bath to celebrate my dear author, I realised two fundamental things: firstly, Jane Austen‘s frills, dialectic and characters were still very much alive inspiring readers from all over the world, and, secondly, Persuasion was, without any doubt, a personal favourite of many.
It is no wonder then that Persuasion, A Musical Drama by Barbara Landis presented by Chamber Opera Chicago at The New Theatre in Cardiff has attracted the same level of interest and proved itself to be just as endearing. The plot is painfully contemporary. Girl Anne Elliot loves boy Captain Wentworth but she leaves him breaking his heart after being ill-advised or if you will, ‘persuaded’ by her godmother Lady Russell. Years later, they meet again and all the feelings girl has kept squashed under her tight corset come resurfacing again.
Impeccably directed and performed, Persuasion is a feast for the eyes and a treat for those who love or why not, love to hate Jane Austen.
Here are 3 reasons why:
The adaptation: music, letters and Jane Austen.
Barbara Landis does an exceptional work of not only adapting Jane’s work so that its narrative flows seamlessly but also to include some of Jane Austen’s personal favourite music from Beethoven to Handel; as well as some personal extracts from her letters. Particularly intriguing is Barbara’s role as both Anne Elliot and Jane Austen switching between the two as she tells the story and then takes central stage performing both characters at the same time. As the narrative moves between two different timeframes, we can’t help but feel mesmerised and caught up in the story as it unravels in music and songs: Jane is Anne and Anne is very much Jane.
Interesting fact, Landis also shares common ancestry with Austen on the English side of her family; in many ways, Landis herself is Jane.
Many believe Jane Austen was not partial to the comedy genre but she was indeed. Her women were so well-rounded that they could carry a scene entirely on their own, she saw women with their flaws and complexity and that generated some of the most entertaining passages in her book. Comedy was not something she used lightly, of course; and it was often to channel something bigger, something society needed to re-consider and come to terms with.
Two names come to mind, Anne Marie Lewis who plays Mary Musgrove, hypochondriac and mother with what would today be diagnosed as depression, and Kristin Johnston who plays Louisa Musgrove.
Lewis gives new life to Ms Musgrove perfectly in tune with Austen’s idea that not every woman is made for having children or spending their life catering for the needs of others, let alone, selfish husbands. Johnston delivers a perfect, carefree Louisa keeping alive the comedy element and giving us a very authentic taste of the women in the Austen world.
The final letter
Persuasion is responsible for some of the best lines ever written. Who doesn’t remember “There could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison” yet it’s only by the end that we assist to its best, most awaited scene yet. The role of Captain Wentworth was delivered magisterially by Jeff Diebold, and so was the final letter where he finally admits his love for Anne. Diebold had a huge responsibility. Wentworth is not merely professing his love but is also one of the first men in literature to do so, openly and in a direct, personal, love letter to the object of his desire.
The entire cast is exceptional and the show is a pleasant, three-hour full immersion in the world of one of the most appreciated writers worldwide. You should go for Jane Austen and stay for the exceptional Irish dance number. You should go because Persuasion is your favourite book and stay for the embracing musical performances. You should go because you love a good period drama and stay because society hasn’t really changed that much.
But in Jane’s name, just go!
*featured image courtesy of Vintage books