Mark Ludmon reviews the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Laura Wade’s The Watsons at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory
Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Nobody really knows why Jane Austen stopped writing her novel The Watsons. All we have (in my Penguin Classics edition) is 45 pages of an early draft packed full of incidents and lots of characters, astutely exposing the social complexities of middle-class life in the early 19th century. Opening on a winter ball in a Surrey town, it follows young Emma Watson who has been thrust from a wealthy upbringing with her aunt into the more straitened circumstances of her more immediate family. There are plenty of romantic intrigues brewing but not a lot happens – one of the most gripping episodes is how Emma deals with the caddish Mr Musgrave offering her a lift in his open-top curricle. And then we are left hanging….
There are plenty of compelling theories for why Austen put the pages aside in 1805 and never went back to them before she died 12 years later, having gone on to write her most famous novels. From the little we have, Emma Watson promises to be one of the most interesting and appealing of Austen’s heroines. She appears to have some pretty radical ideas about the rights of women in society, maybe influenced by the writings of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecroft. Reportedly, Cassandra Austen later revealed what her sister had intended to do with the characters but this comes via Jane’s nephew Edward who heard it from his sisters. Into this hazy space steps Laura Wade who, rather than trying to finish the story as Austen’s niece Catherine Hubback and novelist Ann Mychal have done, uses it as a springboard to explore the challenges of authorship and adaptation.
It is impossible to write much about the play without spoiling some of the joys of how Wade has progressed the narrative. It is clever, playful and very funny and, if you want to enjoy all the unexpected twists, stop reading now. It opens with a well-crafted adaptation of Austen’s fragment, from Emma’s introduction to society at the winter assembly through to the romantic fall-out, sharply bringing out the themes around social status, property and propriety. As it moves beyond Austen’s imagination into Wade’s, the playwright herself is forced to intervene, struggling with the challenges of the creative process itself.
It is a concept that is familiar as far back as Luigi Pirandello’s influential 1921 play Six Characters In Search of an Author in which a group of characters urge a theatre director to provide them with an ending to their unfinished story. With director Samuel West, Wade takes it much further, creating a disorienting, anarchic vision where reality and invention blur. Freed of the rules of fiction and Regency England, the characters go in search of endings that will especially delight, or horrify, anyone familiar with Austen’s novels. The white-panelled simplicity of Ben Stones’s period set is ingeniously disrupted and subverted, with help from Richard Howell’s lighting design, driven by the cast’s dynamic energy under movement director Mike Ashcroft.
In this transfer from Chichester Festival Theatre, Grace Molony is perfect as the determined, single-minded Emma Watson, engagingly believable despite the deconstruction of the universe around her. She is part of an excellent 19-strong cast, including Louise Ford as the anxious playwright, Laura, wrestling with deadlines and difficult characters. In her questioning of what makes writers write, Wade has adapted The Watsons into a celebration of artistic creation and the need to tell stories.
Running to 16 November 2019 at The Menier Chocolate Factory