Joan Davies is open to persuasion on this modern take of the 200-year-old Jane Austen classic


Jane Austen’s Persuasion in the hands of The Royal Exchange Theatre is a modern and surprisingly upbeat tale of a young woman with a mind of her own and a preference for substance over style. Much of that will be no surprise to Austen fans, who unerringly spot the modernity of her heroines and the latent feminism of the writer’s take on the restricted choices available to women 200 years ago - and today.

What will surprise, unless you’ve visited the Royal Exchange recently, is quite how modern an interpretation this is.

Anne Elliot is 27. Eight years previously she had been persuaded by family to break her youthful engagement to a young naval officer of uncertain prospects. During a brief pre-Waterloo period of peace, with naval battles in remission, family circumstances return the now highly regarded and wealthy Captain Wentworth to the neighbourhood, fortunes reversed. He shows no interest in Anne but plenty in other younger women, for whom he would be a real catch.

This modern adaptation by James Yeatman and Jeff James - who also directs - openly flaunts on stage what can be found, albeit more subtly, in the text of the novel: the female excitement, physical and financial, which is generated by the presence of an attractive man; the genuine terror of making a wrong choice; and the sheer joy of dancing. 

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Arthur Wilson as Mr Elliot and Cassie Layton as Elizabeth Johan Persson

Design and direction raise characters on a modern lozenge-shaped podium, which shifts as perceptions and opportunities change and actors swap roles, while a foam party substitutes the sea and sea wall. It’s so modern you’re almost disappointed there’s no iPhone charger concealed within the podium.

Central to all Austen heroines is personal development, growth and insight - which, in this production, applies as much to Wentworth as to Anne. Still angry with her earlier decision, Anne rejects any views which she doesn’t wish to hear, physically pushing characters off the podium; yet, as she becomes more important to other people, she gains the ability to listen, both to others and to her own feelings.

This is a real ensemble work. Most actors take two roles and the production benefits from lively performances all round, particularly from Cassie Layton’s and Caroline Moroney’s energetic Musgrove sisters. Lara Rossi’s performance as Anne is subtle, moving the character from troubled and depressed to a maturity and grace in her concern for others, eventually realising her own desires.

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Lara Rossi as Anne and Arthur Wilson as Benwick Johan Persson

Does the modern version come at a price? Yes: the language. Jane Austen’s writing is among the best in the English language. Her sentences would be diminished by the substitution or rearranging of just one word. The only guaranteed way to do them justice is to give each book six hours, as exhibited by the famous BBC Pride and Prejudice.

Theatre rarely allows this, so there’s a sacrifice. Is it justified?

Modern takes such as Clueless - where Alicia Silverstone played Austen’s Emma as a Beverly Hills princess - worked exceptionally well on the large screen. Though the language was lost, it didn’t seem to matter. For some, language loss in this production will matter. There’s an expectation of gravitas at the Exchange, something they’re trying to shift.

With Clueless, both the LA setting and the medium of film made modern language essential and of course Emma is a heroine who it is difficult to like very much. Anne Elliot is different. She’s a heroine of missed opportunities with whom audiences can identify.

I will be viewing again with season ticket friends. Do I really like this production?  Unusually, I’m open to persuasion.

Persuasion is at The Royal Exchange until 24 June