Set play

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Emma. By Jane Austen, adapted by Vilma Hollingbery and Michael Napier Brown. Royal Theatre, Northampton.

Much-filmed and often adapted, Jane Austen's 1816 novel gets another outing in a new stage version by Vilma Hollingbery and Michael Napier Brown, who also directs this production.

He says he wants "to be absolutely faithful to the original and keep the period setting", and sees the book as "Emma's journey to self-knowledge".

Trying to help her friends find suitable husbands, the 20-year-old heroine only causes confusion. In particular, her snobbish attempts to achieve a good match for Harriet, an orphan, result in a series of misunderstandings, culminating in Harriet falling for the eligible Mr Knightley, with whom Emma is herself half-unwittingly in love. Finally, Emma realises that instead of trying to match-make, she should listen to the promptings of her own heart.

Napier Brown acknowledges that Austen deliberately gave Emma some unattractive characteristics, but he"doesn't want to stress Emma's snobbery since that could be alienating for audiences".

The play will have a modern feel because, although the costumes are those of Austen's time, the sets will be very simple and very open. The revolving stage will be kept moving to emphasise Emma's constant "move from one task to another". It also suggests that she's going around in circles emotionally, until the end, when she finally marries Mr Knightley.

Although this adaptation ha not cut any of the novel's main characters, some actors double their roles, so the same actor plays Robert Martin and Frank Churchill, two of Harriet's suitors, and Mrs Weston doubles with Mrs Elton. But because in "both cases the characters come from opposite ends of the class spectrum there's no possibility of mistaking one for the other".

Most of the novel's great set pieces - such as the picnic on Box Hill when Emma is rude to the good-natured but garrulous spinster Miss Bates - are fully dramatised. Due to the change in manners between Austen's time and today, it's quite hard for modern audiences to see how much Miss Bates is offended in this scene so, in order to underline the shock, Napier Brown will "stress the character's vulnerability".

Certainly, much of the language will be familiar to the book's readers. "Between 60 and 70 per cent of the dialogue is straight from Austen," Napier Brown says.

But because "her syntax is now anachronistic", it will be a challenge for the young actors to speak the lines properly.

It will also be a challenge to young audiences. "The biggest difficulty is for them to get their heads around the language," says Napier Brown. "So where it became too complex, we have simplified it." By being clear, plain and "a character-driven story," the production aims to reflect the tone of austerity and asperity that typifies Austen's original.

Aleks Sierz From March 10 to April 1. Tickets: 01604 632533


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