Edinburgh Fringe 2013
"They’re back! Thirteen of Jane Austen’s heroines come to life in this bold revisiting of some of literature’s most celebrated works. This much-loved Edinburgh 2009 sell-out hit returns for a special limited run as Rebecca Vaughan becomes Emma Woodhouse, Lizzy Bennet, Mrs Norris, Miss Bates and nine other beautifully observed women in critical moments from Austen’s major novels (including Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma) and lesser known or unfinished works. Prepare to fall in love all over again. Director: Guy Masterson (Morecambe). From Dyad Productions (Female Gothic, I, Elizabeth, The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe)."
Rebecca Vaughan is a Fringe heavyweight, one of the most recognisable and respected character actors on the scene. Austen’s Women demonstrates to the full her remarkable range as she works her way through 13 of the authoress’ best and lesser known female characters.
We enter to find Vaughan (typically) has gotten there first. She is sat, as Austen, writing at a desk in a private boudoir. A carved screen is bestrewn with occasional frilly garments. A large (but obviously modern and hard-wearing) rug is on the floor. The music is not period – actually rather jarring. Today’s show is sold out. I would mention this to my neighbour but the 2 seats next to me are empty as is the foreshortened row of 6 in front. I’m up by the lighting and sound box looking down at a sea of white heads – the age of this audience is noticeable and I can’t help but get to wonder why. The far downstage blocking of the production means that for several key scenes, these heads are all I am going to see except for a wealth of unused upstage.
It’s been almost 2 decades since Andrew Davies cast Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in his definitive BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. That production restored Regency period drama to prominence on the shelves of the reading public alongside such contemporary characters as Bridget Jones and Belle de Jour. But as popular historians including Lucy Worsley and Amanda Vickery have been at pains to point out, Austen’s nuanced eye for and skill at social commentary make her much more the the godmother of chick lit. The forcibly cloistered lives led by the gentlewomen of Austen’s period arguably places her in the pantheon of more overtly imprisoned writers. Even so, Austen was able to do for the provincial and parochial what caricaturist James Gillray did to the great and the good.
Vaughan is brilliant at distilling the essence of each characters. Tiny shifts in her countenance, posture and movement transform the physicality, while subtle and not-so-subtle gear switches in her vocal pitch allow her to accurately fill and inhabit the spacious depths drawn by Austen. Vaughan’s comic timing is perfect. Her connection with the audience is flawless. But with 13 characters to get through it’s a shame there aren’t more costumes or other properties to support her ample forms – would different bonnets really be as jarring as the music on entry? For much of the play Vaughn appears in a corset that would do credit to the riskier kind of cabaret artist. There are shifts of shifts although it is never entirely clear what Austen was meant to be doing when we barged into her dressing room. The decision to set this simply-structured run through of key moments from the writings in so private and intimate a space is bold – but is it meaningful?
The first character is, naturally, Elizabeth Bennet. It’s a low ball pitch to a lightweight audience. As she is to time and again prove Vaughan is capable of throwing much harder and much faster. She can do highbrow while keeping it real yet in it’s current frame Austen’s Women is struggling to be either. Like a foxed Gillray print behind a faded mount in a chipped frame, this production is in need of reviving. Even so, a brilliant and gifted actress is doing expert justice to one of the most profoundly comic writers of English, up to an including Wodehouse. And she’s doing it with some of the most electrifying character work available today up to and including Steven Berkoff.