Theatre review: Sense and Sensibility

Try as I might to conduct myself as an Elinor, I have to admit that many times I’m far more a Marianne.

Not that you have to be one or the other. Jane Austen’s first novel has been accused of offering no more than a basic duality in the form of its two protagonists: you’re either given all to sense (rational thought; Elinor) or sensibility (emotional reaction; Marianne).That’s it. Pick one.

But of course that’s a gross oversimplification. Austen’s novel is far more nuanced, as I can attest: I very recently read it in preparation for the Citadel’s production of Sense and Sensibility, the world premiere of Tom Wood’s adaptation of the novel. It was one of the couple remaining Austen novels I hadn’t yet read, and I found it just as charming and full of her trademark delicious wit as the rest of her work. A worthy choice for adaptation to stage, certainly – and one that often flies under the radar of that much more famous (and dare I say, done to death) Austen work, Pride and Prejudice.

In this adaptation, Tom Wood clearly recognizes that there’s more to the story of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood than a simple opposition of temperaments. Adapting that story to the stage was no easy feat, since Sense and Sensibility – and all of Austen’s works, for that matter – resist easy adaptation thanks to a dearth of dialogue. The novel relies heavily on narration; Austen originally conceived of it in epistolary form. Wood has very wisely avoided a narrator here, opting instead to create his own dialogue in (mostly) the same heart and spirit as Austen’s. It’s a wise decision, as exposition is so often the death of dynamism.

It also allows for a good deal of liberty in how the characters actually come across, as compared to their book version. As the show progressed, I found myself thinking that it was kind of like the story was being viewed through the lens of Mrs. Jennings – everyone was more effusive, the romance more pronounced, the drama more heightened, than in the original.

Wood has created a modern romantic comedy, basically – which isn’t a bad thing. The show leans much more heavily to the sensibility side of things, true, but had it achieved the drily satirical tone that occupies much of the book, it would have become a weary affair very quickly – especially with a run time of nearly three hours.

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility play adaptation by Citadel Theatre Edmonton
Julien Arnold, Robin Craig and Madison Walsh in the Citadel Theatre’s production of Sense and Sensibility. Photo by David Cooper.

Julien Arnold and Robin Craig become easy crowd favourites as Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings, the duo of good-natured meddlers who can always be counted on to unconsciously satirize themselves with their own commentary. The big surprise was the amount of sympathy that Patrick Dodd creates for Edward Ferrars – in the book he comes across rather wooden, I thought, but Dodd plays him charmingly awkward, the kind of lovable loser you can’t help but root for.

Similarly, Matt O’Connor manages to make Willoughby come across as less a foppish libertine and more a guy with his heart on his sleeve, who’s cornered himself into a loveless marriage and forsaken the heartbroken Marianne thanks to his indulgent sensibilities. I never really accepted Austen’s acquittal of him in the book, so I was happy that this production does more justice to that point – though by the time this explanation arrives, you’re already well into wanting to see the morose Colonel Brandon (Stephen Gartner) hurry up and marry Marianne, already.

The two heroines, Madison Walsh as Elinor and Julia Guy as Marianne, carry off their parts commendably. Most of the performers in this show were participants of the Citadel/Banff Centre Professional Theatre program, and the intensive rehearsal process shows.

The real surprise was the youngest Dashwood sister, Margaret (Emily Siobhan McCourt). Her character is almost wholly Wood’s own invention: in the book, Margaret is mainly absent and hardly utters a peep even when she is around. Here, Wood has given her a metafictional twist by portraying her as a young scribe, eagerly writing those around her into outlandish stories and giving the unpleasant ones a grisly end. Her nonsequiturs make nicely cynical codas to the conversation around her, a wink and nod to Austen’s own famously wry observations.

I only took issue to one aspect of Wood’s adaptation: the couple times that Elinor was visited by the ghost of her deceased father. Rather than just mentioning him, we actually see the late Mr. Dashwood (Steve Coombs) appear from the shadows on stage and speak to his eldest daughter. It seemed an odd choice, really out of place with the rest of the show – far more Radcliffe than Austen.

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility play adaptation by Citadel Theatre Edmonton
Much like her late father, Elinor’s beau Edward Ferrars (Patrick Dodd) hangs around in the shadows, pining. Photo by David Cooper.

There’s plenty to feast your eyes upon throughout the show. After all, you can’t do justice to a Jane Austen novel unless everyone is decked out in beautiful Regency-era garments and moves about in handsome surroundings (both set and costumes by Leslie Frankish). Bob Baker and Kristen Finlay’s direction imbues the show with theatrical flair: potted plants and lamps whizz around and large backdrops roll smoothly on and off, forming and re-forming each scene. The dropping in of a stage-wide portrait gallery was particularly well done, eliciting some oohs and ahs from the audience and even a smattering of applause from a couple patrons who were particularly charmed by the sight. Everything is on a scale that falls short of grandiose, but is certainly grand.

Sense and Sensibility delivers exactly what you’d want and expect of a Jane Austen stage adaptation. The characters are true to the source material, but not slavishly so; they’re permitted to find their own life before us. The show is a visual treat for junkies of historical period drama. And the story itself – two young girls making missteps in love, caught between the pressures of family and society and their own emotions – is really no different than any contemporary coming of age story.

It’s universal, in short. And this production is universally appealing, whether or not 200-year-old novels are your cup of tea.

 

Until May 14
Sense and Sensibility
Citadel Theatre
buy tickets here

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