“If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk.”
Based on Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion: A Musical Drama follows the overlooked Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old Englishwoman, who was persuaded by her godmother to end her engagement with her true love, Frederick Wentworth, a sailor who was not rich or noble enough. The story begins over 8 years later when Anne’s family is moving out of their family home because of their excessive spending with has brought considerable debts. This turn of events leads Anne and Frederick Wentworth to reunite now that he is a wealthy Navy Captain, giving them a second chance at love and a happy life together.
This musical drama was originally adapted 6 years ago by Barbara Landis, who also plays Jane Austen and Anne Elliot. It has since travelled around the UK and North America, and has been a popular event at Jane Austen festivals in Bath and Port Alberni, as well as Fringe Festivals in Edinburgh, Camden and Buxton.
As the show has frequently traveled, the set is very minimalistic and uses projections to add context, such as finely decorated living rooms and historic locations in Lyme Regis and Bath. This helped bring a stronger focus on the acting and costumes. I was absolutely amazed by the costumes – they clearly communicated important aspects of the characters, such as their wealth and how much they value vanity. Whether it be through the fabric or how they fit the actors, this aspect of visual storytelling was not ignored.
The actors were accompanied by an interesting soundtrack that was played expertly by the orchestra. Much of the music was chosen by Barbara Landis, who used songs found in Austen’s eight music books, to which she added lyrics inspired by quotes from the novel. This adds a personal touch, as Austen would have played such melodies on her pianoforte. Landis’ choices included ‘La Folia’ by Arcangelo Corelli, ‘Piano Sonata in D Major’ by Franz Joseph Haydn, and some Irish tunes to reference the many Irish sailors that joined the Navy at the time. The latter were joyfully accompanied by world-champion Irish dancers who were incredibly in sync with each other. They were my favourite part of the play as the music was jolly, and the choreography was gleeful to match; I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
I already had an interest in Austen’s works as I am an English Literature and Publishing Graduate, and I had previously studied Sense and Sensibility for one of my modules. While I found the book enjoyable enough, I did struggle to read it quickly due to the lack of plot progression compared to more modern texts. That is not to say it is a bad book, just that it is very different from what I usually enjoy. However, it has prevented me from eagerly picking up Austen’s other works. This play has changed that.
Seeing the plot unfold on stage, it adds a new level of reality to the characters. While reading a novel, it can be easy to see a character as 2D – not just because they’re on paper, but also because our perception on their thoughts and actions are heavily influenced by the era we live in. It is easy to misunderstand key aspects of the characters and their interactions as there were very different societal expectations in the early 1800s. However, seeing the actors in full costume and speaking their lines which were taken directly from the novel, it brings a new perspective to the story. The various interactions, such as the humorous moments, long loving looks, and thinly veiled insults become much more clear when acted out. The characters came to life in front of the audience.
Overall, I found this show to be an enjoyable experience, however I do not think it will suit everyone as it is rather niche. If you already have an interest in Jane Austen then I would definitely recommend going to see Persuasion: A Musical Drama if you are given the chance. Especially if you are studying the novel, as watching the characters and plot unfold before you will provide a greater understanding of the characters and show how relatable they are, despite their fictional origins from two centuries ago. Because of this, I’m planning on picking up Persuasion later this year, and hopefully Austen’s other works now that I have a newfound appreciation for them.