Performed by Thistledown Theatre in Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford.
A review by Julia Gasper
What a treat it is to re-visit this sparkling classic adapted by Michael Bloom and performed in the beautiful surroundings of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. All the complications and nuances of the story are conveyed so that even somebody who has never read the book can follow every twist and turn and appreciate its surprises.
The production takes advantage of its setting to kick off with the wedding of Miss Taylor, Emma’s former governess, to Mr Weston, “Do you take this man to be your lawful wedded husband?” an event which Emma’s father, admirably acted by David Guthrie, can only regard as an unmitigated calamity. Guthrie’s performance as the pessimistic, hypochondriac Henry Woodhouse was outstanding. He got the comedy just right, just short of caricature, and there are many other plaudits due. Adi Himpson gave us a spirited Mr Knightley, a man of thoroughly good sense who is continually arguing with Emma, with the lively sparring and bickering that conceal their underlying attraction. When he delivers his reproof of her behaviour to Miss Bates, we applaud him for giving her the scolding that she needs and that neither her father nor her governess will give her.
Emma herself, acted by Sarah Pyper, hit the right balance of likeable and unlikeable, her bossiness and self-importance, which are the result of her upbringing, appearing comical and gradually giving way to experience. Her dreadful treatment of Harriet Smith, the protégée who likes and admires her so uncritically, has to appear comical so that we can ultimately forgive her when there is a happy ending. Sarah Pyper had a nice line in comic asides to the audience, enumerating the encores played by Jane Fairfax, and gasping in indignation when Mrs Elton calls Mr Knightley “Knightley”. The audience loved this and it was quite reminiscent of Miranda Hart.
In the role of Harriet Smith, Holly Gorne was simply perfect. She conveyed the awkwardness of adolescence together with the real agonies of embarrassment, mortification and unrequited love that poor Harriet endures as a result of her high-handed friend’s interference with her life. I think it would be nice to have a better painting shown as Emma’s portrait of her. If Holly Gorne wants a future in acting, I am sure she has the talent. In the role of Jane Fairfax, the undoubtedly lovely Emily Saddler also shone. She endured Emma’s close questioning about the mysterious Mr Frank Churchill with admirable evasiveness, and when it came to the picnic at Box Hill, her eyes silently followed the blatant flirtation between Emma and the handsome and polished, but vain, Frank (Simon Marie) in a way that told their own story for anyone observant enough to see. She proudly refused the help of the conceited and over-assertive Mrs Elton (Ida Persson).
The role of Miss Bates is another of the comic creations that make this story celebrated, and although many of her garrulous monologues from the original novel had to be curtailed, Liz Hutchinson gave an amusing and touching performance. Miss Bates cannot reproach Emma for being rude to her, as without invitations from her social superiors she would be a nobody in Highbury. She must accept snubs with humility, and this is a harsh fate. When Jane Austen created Miss Bates, she herself was facing the prospect of becoming an elderly spinster. With no husband, little money and nothing to occupy her apart from housekeeping and the affairs of her nieces and nephews, Miss Bates is a pathetic figure, and this was the fate that threatened Jane Fairfax and all middle-class women who did not manage to attract a proposal. They were caught in a catch-22 situation. They needed a husband because they had no money, yet it was the women with money such as Miss Augusta Hawkins, who were likely to bag the husbands. The parents and aunts of eligible men such as Frank Churchill were always hovering to enforce this prudent – and cruel – code of behaviour.
By a miracle, Jane Austen became a great novelist instead of a pathetic spinster. She transcended her predicament and turned everything she knew about people and relationships in her world into novels that are subtle, perceptive and wise as well as amusing. She understood that in a little country village such as Highbury there is enough going on to entertain and occupy the mind if you have the insight to observe it. Emma is a tour-de-force, with a string of misunderstandings from start to finish, all finely crafted. People don’t have to be Napoleons to be worth writing about, and a ball in the country, where a girl’s feelings are wounded, is as significant as a battle in which thousands of men are wounded or slaughtered. All human life matters, nothing is big or small. In fact, Napoleon really should have read this book, and could have learnt a few lessons about the dangers of being big-headed. Austen offers happy, positive endings where people learn from their mistakes and marry the right person to make them and those around them happy. What a blessing her novels are and how delightful it was to be able to see this production, which is running until 13th August.
All photos courtesy of Flavia Catena.
Recent posts in Julia Gasper