Persuasion review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘a provocative, contemporary reworking’
Did the gentry frolic semi-naked at foam parties in Jane Austen’s day? They do in Jeff James’ radically rejigged version of her final novel, Persuasion. By the interval, after mega-gallons of slurp have cascaded from the Royal Exchange roof, everyone on stage is wallowing in a sea of bubbles.
This spectacular ejaculation could be seen to symbolise class rigidity being swept away on the briny beach at Lyme Regis, as well as signalling a bold rejection of costume drama cliches.
Or does the orgasmic messiness both sexualise and liberate passions foaming deep inside the head of Austen’s heroic Anne Elliot? She goes along with the marriage pressures of polite society against her proto-feminist better nature, eventually finding a mature, loving relationship with which she might be willing to live.
Either way, the director, design team and the cast have great fun transforming a literary masterpiece into a brazen romcom. The com overwhelms the rom and the deadpan, Blackadder-ish acting style makes bygone social codes seem ridiculously archaic. But the staging is impressive, with the cast lounging in the stalls when they aren’t in character and Lara Rossi at the centre of it all giving a shrewdly controlled portrayal of sensible Anne’s conflicted sensibilities.
Costumes and set design – a revolving platform surrounded by sound boxes, lighting gizmos and techie cables – instantly place us in the here and now and not a Regency mock-up, while Ben and Max Ringham’s gorgeous soundtrack, like the entire production, is as provocatively contemporary as you can get.