Northanger Abbey

Interview with Northanger Abbey's Tim Luscombe

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Tim Luscombe is a writer and director. His adaptation of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey runs from 8 - 11 Mar at The Haymarket.

How is the adaptation different from the original work?
As I began to write the piece I realised that no theatre company could ever produce what I was writing as there were about 30 characters and that I'd better face the fact that I had two big parameters to write within, not one. The new question was: how to get the story into two-and-a-half hours of stage time with only about eight actors at most needed to tell it. That was when I had to face hard challenges like which characters to sacrifice. Mr Allen had to go. Mr Morland had to go. Countless others.
York Theatre Royal, who produced the initial production, insisted that 2 hours 15 minutes and eight actors were the obstacles I had to negotiate. Members of the audience had to be able to catch the last bus home. The theatre company couldn't afford more than eight actors. And that was that. I had to learn to love my obstacles, and I kind of did! After all, art that's made with no obstacles is nearly always boring and self-indulgent.
In adapting work for the stage, do you feel your responsibility is to keep faithful to the narrative structure and content of the novel?
I do feel a loyalty to the original. I love Jane Austen. That's why I want to work on her books and spend time exploring her mind. So it is hard to cut and change things she wrote. Not only is it hard, but it’s dangerous too, because she knew what she was doing. She is a master in the art of storytelling. She understands character. And so you alter stuff at your peril.
But there are things that counted then to a person and in the world that don't count now. Sensibilities that we don't worry about in 2016 might drive a late 18th century man or woman mad with worry. It’s fascinating getting to understand how society functioned when a woman could never go unaccompanied to a dance. When Isabella wants to look at a hat in a shop, the assumption is another person will have to go with her. There’s no discussion or thought about it. If she can't find a companion, she can't go shopping. But if my play spent too long negotiating these 18th century niceties and morals, an audience watching it might feel it was in a museum or a history lesson, so I wanted to put Catherine’s teenage angst in the forefront and make it as much of a love story as I could.
Were you conscious of pushing certain themes through in order to make the piece more pertinent to a modern audience?
Apart from putting the love story first and central, I also wanted to explore as fully as possible two other things that the book handles so well. Both are really crucial and as relevant today as at any other time. The first is that Austen seems to be saying that, if you have your head too deep into literature – romance, fantasy, thriller, horror – and fail to also examine the world as it really is, then you'll draw horrible conclusions and get into trouble. Escapism is fun but, if it excludes a good dose of reality, it is dangerous because it’s delusional.
The other theme is that of education. It is a very big theme in Jane Austen’s books. Specifically, a young woman’s education in understanding the extent to which she can affect the lives of others. In Northanger Abbey Henry takes on the job of helping Catherine understand that she cannot control (or even know) other people, that we’re all independent beings who must ultimately be responsible for ourselves and recognise that the only person you can really change is yourself. Henry also educates Catherine about female equality, no small thing!
The theme of education and personal change/influence can be seen in various similar but interestingly variegated shades in Mansfield Park, where Fanny has to be taught some important and similar life lessons and, most obviously, in Emma where Emma thinks it her role in life to fix up the love lives of others. She learns better. We don't know what’s in the heart or mind of others and we’d better not guess.
What were your challenges getting Northanger Abbey onto its feet?
How to translate Catherine’s inner monologues onto the stage. To solve this problem, I came up with the notion that it might be useful to incorporate parts of The Mysteries of Udolpho (her favourite book) into the action to dramatise her fears and fantasies. Because Catherine has no-one to talk to, no one to be really honest with, there couldn't be scenes where she sat down and discussed her longings and worries and fears. This is partly a reflection of the period and a woman’s role in it.
It’s also partly because Catherine is really a classic 18th century heroine to the extent that she's surrounded by fools and devils, with no confidante in sight. And, when she eventually gets together with Henry and Eleanor, who are neither foolish nor devilish, it’s too late for Catherine – she's already worked out her survival strategy, i.e. to go into her head and conjure up Gothic horror. Or, rather, it’s almost too late. Yet we want to know what's going on in her head. So that’s how the little Udolpho snippets came to be.
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