Laura Wade’s witty theatrical rewrite of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, The Watsons, comments on female authorship, agency and joyfully sends up actors, writers and pseudo-intellectualism.
Let me begin by declaring that I consider myself to be a supreme Jane Austen fan. Not the kind of fan who enjoys dressing up in Regency costumes or gallivanting around Bath; I’m a fan because I truly believe that Jane Austen is one of the greatest writers who has ever lived.
I also love the Menier Chocolate Factory. It is the most perfect little theatre. Local, friendly, intimate – and a history of top class theatre, with many productions transferring to the West End.
Even so, I approached Laura Wade’s play of The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory with a little trepidation. There have been so many substandard adaptations, continuations, versions, updates and so on of Austen’s work, it takes a lot to convince me that the world needs another. I was wrong, so wrong. This play was clever, witty, thought-provoking and funny – everything Austen herself would no doubt have welcomed.
The Watsons is a fragment of a novel by Austen believed to have been written around 1803-05 but abandoned after only 17,000 words, never to be completed. I’ve always thought that this was because some of the elements of The Watsons found their way into Austen’s other novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and imagine that when she looked over The Watsons later in her life, simply found she had used it up. That doesn’t detract from its likeability and, in a world where we long for more Austen, many writers have taken up their pen to finish it – a trend that began with Austen’s very own nieces.
This is the first time The Watsons has been turned into a play. And the play, directed here with verve by Samuel West, begins well enough – it faithfully acts out the events of the opening chapters of the unfinished novel. Engaging heroine Emma Watson (played with spirit by Grace Molony) has been cast out by the rich relatives who raised her and abruptly returned to live among her siblings in genteel poverty, with a father who is shortly to die. She attends a ball, where she attracts the attention of the dim but very eligible Lord Osborne (Joe Bannister) and Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams), while clearly being more interested in Lord Osborne’s tutor, Mr Howard. We take a big breath and relax into it. Our story is set.
Or so we think. Because at this point, the play twists rather unexpectedly. For the central conceit of Laura Wade’s play is this: that the characters suddenly learn that they are not real, that they are nothing more than characters in someone else’s work – and they don’t like it. So they begin to rebel.
This is all very amusing, and it is cleverly done. The play is so worthy because it engages on an intellectual level with Austen as a writer – with writing itself, the process of writing and the meaning of creativity. Louise Ford does a brilliant job of portraying the author Laura (the character of the author takes the name of the real playwright), attempting the task of completing Austen’s unfinished novel. We feel her enthusiasm for her work as she bursts out of her disguise as a maid in front of the character of an unsuspecting Emma and declares herself as the author. We feel her slightly manic energy as – coffee mug in hand, wearing tousled jeans (clothing which causes amusing consternation to the eighteenth century characters) – she stands in front of the whole ensemble trying to convince the characters of their upcoming story arcs. And we witness her creative struggles with her work and her despair as the characters riot out of control. This is a metaplay, joyfully sending up writers, actors and pseudo-intellectualism.
I flinched, just a tiny bit, at some of the ludicrous situations these characters got themselves in when they had broken free from authorial control. The sudden lesbian elopement between the aristocratic Lady Osborne (Jane Booker) and Emma’s Nanny (Sally Bankes) was one. The dance floor disco mash-up and alien arriving onstage in a space suit were others. These were, surely, so deliberately, stupidly incongruous that they risked turning the whole play into nothing more than a blunt farce? But then I remembered the young Austen and what we know of her from her letters and boisterous juvenilia. Austen is an author who once wrote A Letter from a Young Lady, whose feelings being too Strong for her Judgement led her into the commission of Errors which her Heart disapproved, in which the character writes ‘I murdered my father at a very early period of my Life, I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder my Sister’. Austen was not always as subtle and refined as we might remember. So perhaps such absurdity is best embraced, to be understood as simply another aspect of creativity. It is part of the very theme that makes this play, unlike so many other Austen extensions, live up to the sum of its parts.
I would not be surprised if this production were to follow its many predecessors at the Menier Chocolate Factory in transferring to the West End after its run. I would go again. There are so many ideas packed into this clever play that, even if you know the central conceit, it would bear re-watching extremely well. Rather like the novels of Jane Austen, in fact.
The Watsons will be showing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 16th November. Click here for more information and to book tickets.