Jane Austen-themed shows are popular. You just have to look at the success of improv troupe Austentatious (they play to sold-out venues around the country and have spawned a slew of imitators) to know that popping Austen in the title is a safe bet. And I confess that it was what drew me, a diehard Austen fan, to the show.
Austen Empowered mashes together a collection of tropes and plot themes that anyone with a passing knowledge of Austen’s work will recognise – the overbearing aunt, the headstrong protagonist, the cad, a sister called Fanny (much is made of the modern usage of this word) – and peppers a Regency-ish script with modern words and references. This formula is the basis of the vast majority of the jokes in the show, making the dialogue repetitive and predictable. Add in some lols at a character with an amusing speech impediment (“I outwanked all the other officers!”), a man in a dress and some rather troubling gay innuendo, and the experience is complete.
It might be fun to combine early 1800s mores with 21st Century language and technology – and yes, it provides a few laughs – but to what end? Why would these characters, who still blush and curtsey and dance around sensitive topics, also use words like ‘prick’ and ‘bollocks’? What does giving them access to Facebook and mobile phones achieve? In a world where propriety is everything, why do they spend their time doing vodka shots with their friends? Simple juxtaposition seems to be the answer here.
The joy of Jane Austen is, of course, in the depth of her character studies. Her comedy arises from delicate wit, intricately crafted dialogue and incisive observation; she once described her own work as a ‘little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush’. Austen Empowered lacks any this delicacy; it reminds me more of Shakespearean comedy, with its bawdy humour and cross-dressing. The narrative itself draws on many an Austen trope, but doesn’t subvert, challenge or parody them – as the best adaptations do – and is also a bit murky, plot-wise.
The shining light of this production is Amanda Stewart, who is very watchable as Lizzie Bennett avatar Juliet, making the most of the dialogue and bringing an enjoyable energy to the piece. But the main thing I was left wondering was: what was empowering about this show? I didn’t think Jane Austen was in need of much help… and if aping her style is all we have to offer, then we can safely say she’s just fine unempowered.