Wetly done indeed!

Last week, I headed to the picturesque surroundings of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury to see a play.  I have attended a number of Shakespeare productions there before, including a particularly good version of Much Ado About Nothing, and it has proved to be an atmospheric location for an evening of outdoor theatre.  The play on this occasion was Heartbreak Productions‘ adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.  Before I discuss the play, though, there is one thing I need to address.  It rained.  A lot.

From a few spots of rain as the programmes were being sold,the weather really set in as the play began, and continued to show us just how much water there is in the sky throughout the first act.  At first just a bit of drizzle, it became a steady fall of rain with a few minutes when it really was pouring down.  Through it all, the actors continued, ad libbing from time to time to make reference to the meteorological conditions, and having to project more than ever to carry over the sound of the water drumming down on a collection of anoraks, tarpaulins, rain hats and umbrellas.  As the love lives of Emma and her friends became steadily more complex, a few audience members abandoned ship and headed for dry ground, but most of us made it to the interval.  At this point, while the actors came and greeted the “mad, mad people” who were watching them, over half of the audience retreated.  The rest of us, reasoning that the show was going to go on whether we were there to bear witness or not, and that we couldn’t possibly get any wetter than we already were, moved closer to the stage and stayed for the second act.  By the time of the ball and the picnic, the two most famous scenes from the book, the weather had cleared.  The sky was still overcast, but we could enjoy the rest of the evening’s entertainment without hiding under our umbrellas or trying to stop the rain dripping down our necks.

There was a wonderfully British feel to the evening.  Would inhabitants of other nations sit there, getting cold and wet, watching other cold and wet people act out a version of one of their great novels.  Perhaps they would, but it seemed a peculiarly British way to pass the time.  It was a special shared experience in which the cast and audience bonded far more than would have been the case on a lovely sunny evening, such as one might reasonably expect at the end of July.  Somehow the story of Emma seemed to contain more references to the weather than I remember from other adaptations and these never failed to make the audience laugh, whether it was a fairly normal aside or Mr Elton’s decision to read a particular passage in church (“and it rained for forty days and forty nights” of course).  At one point, this trend nearly derailed the play.  Moving to the ‘harpsichord’, which was a little damp, Frank Churchill remarked on how wet it was and suggested “the boiler must have broken upstairs”.  We chuckled, but Mr Knightley quite rightly asked “What’s a boiler?”  For a few moments it seemed all was lost, and I knew I’d have been struggling to fend off a fit of the giggles had I been performing, but one of the ladies, probably Mrs Weston, said “oh, young Mr Churchill always knows about the newest trends” in a tone of voice that suggested something along the lines of “let’s get on with the scene, shall we, before we get so waterlogged we can no longer move.”

Much entertainment was derived after the play had ended in trying to fold up very wet chairs and in observing that denim had been a particularly poor choice of attire – I’m sure my jeans weighed twice as much on the way home as they had on the way there.

Anyway.  Apart from that, Mr Librarian, did you enjoy the play?  Very much so.  It was engaging, theatrically interesting and very funny, even without the weather-related additions to the script.  The five actors (James Merry, Holly Beth Morgan, Erika Sanderson,Duncan Wigman and Kimberley Wintle) were all excellent, portraying thirteen of Austen’s characters between them as well as each playing an artist, discussing (or rather arguing about) romanticism as they explored the story.  The art class was a framing device which allowed them to introduce each character by ‘painting a portrait’ of them, instantly filling us in on the details of what we needed to know.  Landscapes and wedding paintings also played their part, and literal portraits of the characters came in very handy in those scenes where more than five of the characters were present.

Moving between the two world was not at all jarring.  Indeed, the reactions of the artists to the story they were telling added another layer of fun to the proceedings.  Simple changes of costume accessories allowed characters to be switched at speed, and those of the company who were called on to play the smaller roles demonstrated great versatility.  James Merry was most frequently seen as Mr Knightley, but his scene as the elderly and very, very deaf Mrs Bates was most excellent.  Erika Sanderson cropped up as all sorts of different people, but made a particular impression as the awful Mrs Elton, booming away with unwanted advice and ill-considered observations.

Jane Austen had a talent for writing extremely well observed social satire and for drawing wonderul, enduring characters.  These characters were brilliantly brought to life by Heartbreak Productions, and I would definitely recommend catching one of their remaining performances (in venues across Great Britain) if you can.  The talent, hard work and endurance of the actors was a marvel to behold, and the adaptation has a wit and charm all its own.  If possible, catch it on a slightly drier day, but whatever the weather, it really is a great evening out.

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