Austen’s Women

Rebecca Vaughan in Austen's Women

Rebecca Vaughan in Austen's Women. Image courtesy of Mobius Industries

Leicester Square Theatre, 21 April – 9 May 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The extracts that make up Austen’s Women – each one taken near enough verbatim from Jane Austen’s novels – have been selected to show off the range of adapter-performer Rebecca Vaughan’s acting ability just as much as that of Austen’s female characters.

In fact, it’s possible Vaughan prioritised keeping herself entertained, with as wide a variety of temperaments and mannerisms as possible, over celebrating Austen’s women. Though her adoration for the material is palpable, the whole 70 minute monologue has the air of an audition piece, designed to impress on an agent the performer’s versatility – and to be fair, she is versatile – in as short a time as possible.

So while we get to see Vaughan being austere as Mrs Norris, conspiratorial as Emma Woodhouse and in pieces as Marianne Dashwood all in the space of ten minutes, over the course of the fourteen extracts banal and trivial observations are disproportionately represented.

For every Mary Stanhope – who in her naivete unwittingly embodies the transactional nature of marriage at the time – there’s a Miss Bates, who prattles uninterestingly about the guests and the décor. For every socially conscious Lizzy Bennet, there’s a vacuous Diana Parker. Banality may have been women’s reluctant lot in the 18th century, but Austen is still celebrated today partly because her heroines struggled against that.

Austen was a novelist, not a dramatist, so her prose speeches aren’t guaranteed sparkling life on stage. While he successfully identifies this pitfall, director Guy Masterson solves it – as he does most things script-related – by having his star lay on the tics and mannerisms with distracting vigorousness.

Harriet Smith gets Tony Blair’s fractured diction; Mary Stanhope is noticeably blinky; Mary Musgrove and Mrs Elton both get a fan to occupy their hands; and every line is assigned a rigid pattern of pause, emphasis and acceleration that mask meaning like explanatory sticky-notes all over the pages of a novel.

Unsurprisingly the most affecting extracts are those with the least directorial interference. While Marianne’s sobbing and wailing make it hard to follow what she’s actually trying to say, the deadpan, uninflected verbal cataracts of Mrs Norris erode all obstacles between the audience and Austen’s still-enduring sentiments.

Written by Rebecca Vaughan after Jane Austen

Crew includes Guy Masterson (director) and Kate Flanaghan (costume designer & maker)

Cast includes Rebecca Vaughan (various roles)

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