Sense and Sensibility. By Kate Hamill, adapted from the novel by Jane Austen. Directed by Geordie Brookman. State Theatre Company South Australia. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. May 29 (preview) to June 2, 2018. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700.
Have you ever imagined Sense and Sensibility on stage with added kazoos, skateboards and roller skates? They all feature in State Theatre Company South Australia's production which is coming to the Playhouse. Anna Steen, who plays Elinor Dashwood, says, "It's not your usual Jane Austen."
Kate Hamill's adaptation, she says, distils the story into a two hour and 20 minute theatrical presentation, "as opposed to 10 hours if you were putting the novel on stage".
The ages of the two main sisters have been raised to their 20s (from 19 and 16) and nine actors play all the roles with some of them cross-dressing and playing children.
"It's lots of fun," she says, though she promises "The heart of the story is held very true".
The aforementioned kazoos, roller skates and skateboards are for the scene changes which she calls "a theatrical delight".
Steen says the adaptation captures the essence of the story of the Dashwood family and in particular the romantic ups and downs in the lives of the two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, who, respectively, represent the "sense" (wisdom and good judgment) and "sensibility" (sensitivity and emotion) of the title.
"Each learns a little bit from the other," Steen says.
"Elinor learns to stand up for herself ... and Marianne learns sometimes if you go gently it can lead to true happiness."
When Henry Dashwood dies, his son from his first marriage, John, breaks a promise to his father to look after his stepmother and his three half-sisters following the importunings of his greedy wife Fanny. The Dashwood women - including youngest sister Margaret - have only a small income and are forced to move into more modest lodgings in Devonshire.
The family's only hope of improving its lot is for Elinor and Marianne to marry well. Much of the story is taken up with their encounters with various potential mates, such as Fanny's brother Edward Ferrars, the dashing John Willougby, and the older Colonel Brandon, and the resulting consequences.
What Hamill has done in adapting the story, Steen says, is to create a group of characters, the "Gossips", as a kind of Greek chorus, relaying information and taking the place of many of the minor characters of the book to provide the audience with a sense of the context of the period in which the Dashwoods lived.
"It helps the audience understand the power of gossip and scandal in the Regency era: if you wrote private letters to each other it meant you were engaged - you didn't do that unless there was an agreement between you," she says.
Scandal still exists today, she notes, although the nature of it is somewhat different.
Sense and Sensibility highlights the lack of power women had in the era, she says, and young men too: they acted at the behest of the matriarch and patriarch of the family.
"People rarely had autonomy."
Steen was last in Canberra with The Importance of Being Earnest and is looking forward once again to performing in "the beautiful theatre, the Playhouse".
Sense and Sensibility will be a slightly bittersweet experience as it is the last show of the State Theatre Company South Australia's Ensemble, of which she was a member.
"It was only contracted to do four shows - A Doll's House, Macbeth, In The Club and Sense and Sensibility."
Another Ensemble member is Dale March, who plays both John Dashwood and Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. He calls Sense and Sensibility "a story of good being rewarded" and says "There's a lot of joy and humour injected into it."
Writer Kate Hamill, he says, is from Bedlam Theatre in New York which specialises in adapting classic works of literature to the stage.
While the actresses playing Elinor and Marianne (Miranda Daughtry) are the only cast members who each play one character throughout the show, he says audience members shouldn't be confused as the performers (also featuring Rachel Burke, Nathan O"Keefe, Rashidi Edward, Caroline Mignone, Geoff Revell and Lizzy Falkland) will change costumes and personalities to suit each new role.
"It's chaos for us," he says.
He plays John Dashwood, a small but significant role, mostly seen at the start - "he sets the trouble in motion" - and some smaller bits as well as the more substantial role of Colonel Brandon, the melancholy, wealthy landowner with heartbreak in his past who becomes a suitor to one of the sisters and a friend to the other.
March says the adaptation shows the pressure of societal expectation of the world in which the characters live and how easily a scandal can lead to disgrace.
He says people who know the book will recognise the characters and even lines from the text and, he says, although it's condensed, he thinks the adaptation does a good job of capturing Austen's ability to capture "tenderness and depth of heartbreak" behind the light-heartedness in depicting the various journeys of the characters who seek love and happiness.
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