The Watsons review – Austen heroine brought stunningly back to life


I would seriously urge anyone planning to attend Laura Wade’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, The Watsons, to stop reading now since one of the play’s many pleasures is its capacity to endlessly take us by surprise. We go in expecting a literary exercise and come out having seen a philosophical comedy.

Wade plays fair in briskly dramatising the events of Austen’s fragment. Emma Watson, after being stylishly reared by a Shropshire aunt, returns after 14 years to the genteel poverty of the Surrey family home. Marriage, for Emma and her sisters, seems a matter of economic necessity and various candidates present themselves at a local ball. One, Tom Musgrave, is a conceited flirt; another, Lord Osborne, is a diffident aristo; a third, Mr Howard, is a sententious clergyman. Who will Emma choose in order to escape from her own discordant family?

A lesser dramatist, seizing on hints from Austen’s sister that Emma would reject the lord and marry the cleric, might have gone on to give us period pastiche. But, just as Wade turned the tables on us in Home, I’m Darling by showing the ersatz nature of the 1950s milieu, so here she upsets the applecart by making a writer called Laura pivotal to the action. Laura finds herself confronting a puzzled, angry Emma about her destiny. This has a ripple effect in which all the characters question Laura’s authority and even threaten to take over the story.



Having a ball … The Watsons. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

The debt to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author is openly acknowledged but it is repaid with interest. Wade goes beyond the Pirandellian proposition that illusion is reality to launch a debate about the shifting status of a dramatic or literary creation.

In one sense, it is absurd to say that a character takes over from the author: all the words spoken here are written by Wade. Yet, in the case of Austen, her people and plots have a vigorous extratextual life, as John Mullan reminds us in the programme, with references to Vampire Darcy’s Desire and an online video monologue, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

I loved Wade’s approach because it is playful and serious at the same time. It wrestles with the impertinence of completing a literary fragment, yet it rejoices in the limitless possibilities this affords. Even if it once or twice seems to be coruscating on thin ice, it is also given a beautifully bold, clear production by Samuel West and a fine design by Ben Stones. We start in a pristine Austen drawing room, which opens up to become a battleground of ideas embracing Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

The acting is also excellent. Louise Ford as Laura captures both the desperation and delight of a dramatist who finds her supposed omniscience challenged. Grace Molony as Emma shows how the lively wit of Austen’s character translates into mutinous fury when she finds she is apparently entrapped in a fiction; and there is rich support from Sally Bankes as a disarmingly knowledgeable Nanny, and Tim Delap as the archetypal poker-backed clergyman.

Writers sometimes tell you that a character has the capacity to dictate events. Wade has seized on this tension between authorial control and imaginative freedom to create a stunning play.

At the Minerva, Chichester, until 1 December.



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