25 August 2009

Further Infringement: Jane Austen's Guide to Emma, by Jane Austen

This post is a review of the production Emma at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2009.

Gentle readers,

It was with some degree of pleasure that This Author observed that her Work, a novel by the title of Emma, had been converted for the stage and selected for performance at a festival to the North. The performance drew an audience of which no theatrical company ought to be ashamed, especially as theatrical companies are generally ill-acquainted with that emotion and might not perform it creditably. The aforesaid Audience endured a Venue of excessive warmth (the first such situation of record in Scotland); nevertheless, Emma was received with no small degree of approbation, making for an enjoyable afternoon.

The cast must surely be numbered among the greatest strengths of this production. Emma herself triumphed over a woefully inaccurate costume, a circumstance regarding which This Author acknowledges a disproportionate degree of interest and experience. Just as, however, an animal enthusiast might be pardoned for distressing himself over the casting of a poodle as a Great Dane, a clothing scholar must beg your forgiveness for her discomfiture at seeing Emma, in a dress in the fashion of 1905, share a stage with Jane Fairfax's 1815 gown and Mrs. Elton's wardrobe from that unfortunate era of the war with the Colonies.

To return from that digression, the cast is to be generally lauded. Emma anchored the production admirably, displaying the excess of confidence but rightness of intention which are the hallmarks of that particular young lady. Harriet Smith was sweet in disposition and aware of her own shortcomings. One may be pardoned for thinking that Emma, in spite of her social superiority, might gain as much from that friendship as Harriet.

Those who oppose fiction on the grounds that its characters seldom provide sound moral examples for today's youth would be sure to object to the performances of Frank Churchill and Mrs. Elton, which the two performers of these roles must surely take as the highest compliment. Mr. Elton, the vicar, convinced the audience in succession of his admiration for Emma, his distress at discovering that his feelings were not returned, his self-satisfaction in his marriage to Mrs. Elton, and his chagrin as he found that his marriage, intended for the discomfiture of Emma, was rather more likely to result in discomfort for himself. The actress who played Mrs. Elton was perhaps the most singularly talented of the production, also performing as Mrs. Weston. This measure gave rise to a moment of amusement when Emma received an enquiry as to Mrs. Weston's whereabouts, with Mrs. Elton on stage in plain view.

Mr. Knightley, alas, cannot be praised so unequivocally. For a man considered to be the foremost Gentleman of Highbury, he displayed an excess of feeling, and seemed less in control of his passions than a man of seven- and thirty ought to be. As noted previously, Emma suffers from an excess of confidence arising from her elevated social position and upbringing; no one chides her and consequently she finds herself rather more perfect than a more objective observer might. Mr. Knightley's role is to encourage Emma in Self-Reflection and provide corrections with the best of intentions for Emma's character. In this production, however, Mr. Knightley appeared to offer these comments out of erroneous belief in his own perfection, demonstrating a more extreme version of Emma's flaws than Emma herself. He and Emma consequently did not convince of their emotional attachment.

The Venue for this production, in addition to being rather warm, placed the actors in such proximity to the audience that they were at times a mere arm's reach away. The actors displayed much skill in never once allowing their eyes to divert to the faces of their observers. Yet it seems as if the Director for this production had little experience with that form of theater known as the Thrust Stage. This construction (almost certainly named by a male) seats the audience on three sides of the stage and requires considerate forethought to prevent actors from obstructing the views of their colleagues. In several scenes, notably a party at Mrs. Weston's home, the focal actors of the scene were from many perspectives entirely obscured by their nonspeaking colleagues. In some productions, of course, such an act could only be considered a service; with such a cast, it became unfortunate.

Ultimately, This Author recommends this production to any considering Fringegoers, and thanks you for your consideration in partaking of her Thoughts on the Matter.

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