Review - The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Jane Austen only wrote six finished novels before dying at the age of just 41. But an entire industry has developed around her endlessly popular fiction, including multiple film and television versions and plenty of literary (and some not-so-literary) spin-offs inspired by her characters and stories (including one called Pride and Promiscuity, which helpfully provides us with "the lost sex scenes of Jane Austen").
She died before completing what would have been her seventh novel Sanditon; it was adapted for a television series earlier this summer by TV writer Andrew Davies. She also left behind another uncompleted novel The Watsons that she began writing around 1803, but abandoned after writing some 7,500 words for reasons that are unknown. Though others have sought to complete it -- including her own niece and another great-great-niece - it has now been brought to the stage for the first time, in a highly meta-theatrical version by playwright Laura Wade in which she inserts herself into the narrative of what becomes an increasingly convoluted attempt to write this new version. In other words, it is a work of creative imagination about the harnessing of the creative imagination itself, in which the characters step out of their scenes to urge directions that their stories might take to the authorial voice of a character that's also called Laura.
The usual shorthand term for this kind of theatrical endeavour is Pirandellian, after the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello whose work frequently saw the fictional and stage lives of the actors and the characters they are playing become intertwined. But however clever it is, I typically find his plays make my patience wear thin; since everything and everyone is up for constant dramatic reinterpretation, the stakes paradoxically dwindle, and I stop believing in them at all.
Though Wade does not entirely avoid this pitfall, there's an agility, playfulness and knowingness in her version that casts it in a constantly shifting focus. Much as Broadway composer Rupert Holmes once brilliantly finished Dickens's unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood with a musical that provided multiple possible endings, decided on the night by audience vote, so this version offers a number of different possibilities, too.
In a production that was first premiered at Chichester's Minerva Theatre last November, director Samuel West provides a fast and fluid route through its changing perspectives and interventions, and a large ensemble cast rise to its frequently hilarious changes of tone and direction.
It's a play that both celebrates Austen and teases her into embracing new contemporary thoughts and ideas with refreshing vigour.
The Watsons tickets are available now.