Six months after her death in 1817, Jane Austen’s final novel, ‘Persuasion’ was published. 201 years later a team of hugely talented women have taken this classic tale of social mobility, love and independence and adapted it for the stage. We sat down with Kate McGregor, director of Persuasion and artistic director of Theatre6, Maria Haik Escudero who has composed and original score for the show, and scriptwriter Stephanie Dale, to find out more about the process of bringing Austen’s final complete work to life, and what it is like being a creative team of women working in the 21st Century ...

Maria explains how she and Kate first began working together, at the start of her career as a theatre composer, “I had studied as an actor, and worked on a short film with a friend of mine which I wrote the music for. I suddenly got lots of compliments on the music, and none on my acting, and I thought maybe this is something I could seriously look in to! I went back to university for my Masters degree and in the process met Kate, who directed my final show.”

Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of a man determined to spend his money to excess. Anne meanwhile is unmarried at 27, leading society to deem her a perpetual spinster, but as we learn, there is a lot more going on inside Anne’s head and heart than she might lead her peers to believe.  Were the team familiar with Persuasion before starting the project? “Not at all!” says Maria, “I’m familiar with Austen, and I’ve read a few of her novels and of course watched the famous TV adaptations, but Persuasion was a completely new discovery for me!”, Kate smiles and agrees, “Me too!” she says, “I had read some Austen at school but being perfectly honest I don’t remember being a huge fan. Then Stephanie approached me a couple of years ago as she was really interested in doing a version of Persuasion.” So what changed Kate’s mind on Austen? “I took the book away, read it and found the whole story really captivating. There was something so compelling about an impossible love story that spans across eight years. I loved the idea, as did Steph, of what happens inside our heads when we suffer heartbreak.”

Stephanie expands a little more, “I started off reading the book two or three times to really get the story back in my head. Then Maria, Kate and I had a lot of discussions about the key things that stood out to us, and which of those moments we really wanted to see on stage.”  

Published in 1817, Kate, Steph and Maria faced the challenge of taking a story over 200 years old and making it engaging and relevant to 21st Century audiences. What kind of struggles did they encounter in the process of this, I wonder? Stephanie jumps in, “What Jane Austen does beautifully is write about epic, sweeping themes in miniature. So within ‘Persuasion’ there is a beautiful love story, and a story of families connecting which are both themes that will always have currency.” Kate firmly agrees with Stephanie, “She was a fairly radical writer for her time, in a way that we perhaps don’t always give her enough credit for. A lot of her major female characters were very strong and had bold opinions and feelings, they’re ahead of their time. In many ways when we were developing ‘Persuasion’ we found that Anne couldn’t be taken out of her time, she is part of her history and her world but her world was going through huge amounts of social, political and scientific change which is something we are experiencing at the moment as well.”

When composing the music for ‘Persuasion’, Maria looked specifically at bridging the gap between the 19th Century setting, and the contemporary audiences, “I wanted the music to be timeless, to transcend period and be more about Anne’s mind.” All three of the creative team agree that the emphasis on Anne’s internal monologue and thoughts provided one of the toughest challenges in bringing ‘Persuasion’ to the stage. Maria continues, “I wanted to get across her thoughts not just as a woman in that particular era but how someone might feel today, or at any time, after eight years of heartbreak. So I developed particular themes that we would just hear as they spin around inside Anne’s mind. I then researched music of Austen’s time and wanted to juxtapose it with more modern musical sounds.”

Stephanie found another particular challenge in writing the script, “As with a lot of Austen’s work, a lot of it is static dialogue with people drinking cups of tea and however beautifully that is described in the novel, you’ve got find a way of making it live and vivid on stage.” Kate chimes in, “Steph and I had a long discussion about this – how to make it feel passionate on stage and how to give Anne a voice and a real connection with the audience as that hasn’t been done before.”

This connection to the audience gave Maria, Stephanie and Kate their favourite scene in the show, “I don’t want to give it away!” says Kate, “But there’s a moment toward the end where we challenge all the structures we have created to find a way for Anne to break out and be true to herself.” Maria goes on, “We spend the play building layers of music and musical themes and finally they all meet, creating this musical chaos almost.” Kate continues, “The theatre just melts away from Anne on stage and it allows the audience to really connect with Jane Austen’s story, and what it truly feels like to be in Anne’s position.” Stephanie also loves this scene, and picks out another favourite moment in our chat, “There’s a scene where Anne and her love interest Wentworth meet each other in Bath, and it is so beautifully awkward. You can feel the audience willing them to get together but there are still obstacles in their way. It’s so much about what isn’t said between them, and the tension between them. We then get to hear from Anne’s perspective, getting her thoughts out directly to the audience.”

It seems as though there’s a lack of female led creative teams in theatre at the moment, “Although I think it is improving”, says Stephanie, “there are a lot more women running venues who are employing more women and staging female focused work but there’s definitely still a way to go.” Maria agrees, “I hope seeing a female led team like ours will encourage any other women to get involved. I don’t know why there’s a lack of female composers for theatre, it’s so annoying!” Kate summarises by saying, “Historically a lot of what has survived is from male writers and male perspectives, so a lot of the narratives being told focus on men but we are absolutely seeing a shift to include women and female perspectives in this, as well as women directing, adapting, producing and composing. You can have a creative team made entirely of women, like ours, without even realising what’s happening. You’re just picking the best people for the job!”

 

Jane Austen's Persuasion comes to Lighthouse from Thursday 20 - Saturday 22 September

Published 14 September 2018