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Jeff James: "You have to fight with the novel"

Jeff James: "You have to fight with the novel"

Jeff James: "You have to fight with the novel" cover photo on Stagedoor
Lyn Gardner interviews the writer and director behind a totally 21st century reimagining of Jane Austen's Persuasion.

Writer and director Jeff James reckons that all page to stage adaptation is an act of violence, but when it works it’s not a hostile act but rather a necessary one. “When you adapt a novel for the stage you have to beat the novel up, you have to hack away at it, cut it up and change it. I think that if you start from a position where you hope to give everything that’s in the novel to an audience you are going to lose in the attempt. So you have to fight with the novel to make an evening of theatre which exists on its own terms, which honours what is in the novel, but which doesn’t try to repeat what the novel does. The stage adaptation has to be its own thing.”

James’ version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which transfers to Alexandra Palace in early April after winning rave reviews at the Rose in Kingston, is very much its own thing. It's a gorgeous, very funny, deliciously tart, and wholly contemporary take on Austen’s final novel which makes it feel as if it could have been written yesterday.

This is a staging which strips away the bonnets, transposes the action to the present day and has a playlist that includes Nicki Minaj and Frank Ocean. Andrew Davies and the BBC would have a fit. But Austen? I think she would see how cleverly James has captured the emotional heart of the story of Anne Elliot, the woman previously persuaded by her family to reject the proposal of Captain Wentworth because they didn’t think he was grand enough for her. Now seven years later Wentworth’s career is in the ascendant, and at 27 Anne is considered an ageing spinster unlikely to ever marry. Can true love bloom again?

Production image from Rose Theatre Kingston performance. Photo by The Other Richard.

“The way Austen is talked about in the culture seems to always emphasise her strangeness to us and how the novels are 200 years old and the people they depict are not like us, they don’t sound like us, or look like us. But when I was reading Persuasion, I kept being struck how much of it I related to in terms of my own experiences and the experiences of people around me. So much of Persuasion revolves around peoples' anxieties about where they are going to live and what kind of house they will have. We still live in a world where who you have a relationship with can make a material difference to the kind of housing you are able to afford. So, when I was first reading it, I was gripped and kept thinking this novel could be about me and my friends.”

James was also struck by the fact that although the received idea about Jane Austen is that she is quite a gentle writer, “I kept thinking how much violence there is in the novel. These characters have violent competing forces inside of them, particularly when it comes to sex and money and family. They are living in a high stakes world where they will metaphorically cut each other’s throats to get ahead and survive. It seems so like our own world.”

Production image from Rose Theatre Kingston performance. Photo by The Other Richard.

Austen, of course, never married herself and she died quite soon after finishing Persuasion. James speculates that might reflect “the darkness that is present in this novel which isn’t apparent in the other books. Anne is a much older heroine. There is more at stake for her. Austen is obsessed with marriage and couples in the novels, but what’s interesting is that through writing she found a way to make her own life meaningful outside marriage.” He points out that the brilliantly observed novels keep her alive to us.

There is a line in Persuasion where Anne observes that “men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story.” What does James make of the fact that over two hundred years later he is a man who is bringing Anne’s story to the stage in his version, co-adapted with another man, James Yeatman?

“It would be an anachronism to describe the novel as a feminist novel, but there is some feminist thinking in the way Austen articulates the strength of Anne as a character and the intensity with which she describes Anne’s experience. One of the reasons I wanted that line in the play was because it’s a line which resonates across the centuries and I enjoyed the joke that the audience know I am a man, and it’s a man who was deciding which of Austen’s original lines would survive and make it onto the stage and which don’t. I can’t change who I am, but I can try to honour what the novel is. It’s such an outstanding work of art and I hope that I have done it justice in all its complexity and intensity.” He has. Purists may purse their lips but this Persuasion is its own thing entirely, and one that might make Jane herself smile.

Cover image of the cast from Rose Theatre Kingston performance, photo by The Other Richard. Persuasion runs at Alexandra Palace from the 7th through the 30th of April, tickets can be found here.

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Lyn Gardner

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