Guy Masterson and Rebecca Vaughn emancipate Austen's Women in this powerful theatre adaptation
Remove the men in Jane Austen's novels, erase Mr Darcy, send Edmund away, distract Mr Knightley, and what is left? That's the question that Rebecca Vaughn and Guy Masterson attempt to answer in their co-adapted, one-woman play Austen's Women, performed to a packed house in the Black Box.
The 'mother of romance novelists', Austen is one of the accepted greats of English literature, and her heroines - Emma, Marianne, Elizabeth and even meek and mild Fanny Price - are some of literature's best known characters. Alone as they rarely are in the books, dialogue converted to monologue, Austen's Women take centre-stage. Yet, in a culture where women of 'quality' lived with their male protectors, their actions, their voices, are inescapably shaped by the male gaze. By eluding that gaze Austen's Women successfully establishes itself as a powerful piece of theatre.
Rebecca Vaughn paces the stage in modest period underwear and bare feet. In the process of dressing for the day, she slips from one character to the next with each layer, literally putting on the part - always returning to the character of the arch and knowing Austen. The spartan stage, with only a desk, a rug and a screen to change behind, keeps attention focused on Vaughn. It's intimate, both in setting and concept, and establishes the audience as part of the performance.
The words stay the same, lifted intact from the pages of Austen's novels, but somehow, subtly, the content changes. Marianne Dashwood's furious grief at her suitor Willoughby's rejection is somehow more poignant when her rage and rejection is a private thing; Mrs Norris' resentment and spite all the more obvious when she is lecturing no one about ingratitude and the need to know one's place.
Vaughn masterfully conveys the personality and identity of each woman through voice and body language. For the spiteful Mrs Norris, for instance, she narrows her eyes and mouth and her voice slides down from somewhere in her nose; her face and body are close and controlled. Marianne Dashwood, by contrast, is undone, uncaring and perhaps past knowing of appearances, as she wails from the floor.
Most effective of all is Mrs Parker, whose careful movements and long, sidelong looks summon the heavy, smug image of the woman.
On the whole it works. There are a few pieces that don't adapt well, mostly those where it's impossible to ignore the absence of another voice. Mrs Bates and Elizabeth Watson, for example, are clearly conversing with someone. It makes the audience aware of the artifice of the piece.
It's a small flaw in what is undoubtedly a most enjoyable performance. The applause summons Vaughn back to the stage twice and the atmosphere in the Black Box as the lights come up is lively and curious. Austen's Women proves that they can stand on their own.