Monday, June 14, 2010

Away ...

A stint over the long weekend at a B&B with wine and books. And dreams of writing, not plays, but those books on the backburner of my mind. Money, perhaps in another Austen adaptation? No-one is reading ... wouldn't mind some feedback ...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The text of my Presentation at JAFA2010

Good afternoon all my fellow Austenophiles!
Such a broad topic that one hardly knows where to begin. My talk today will try to cover the sorts of issues and challenges the writer faces when attempting to being Austen to the screen and also (in not as much depth) to the stage.

So let us begin with a general observation: Before 1990, adaptations were carefully rendered visual, accurate pieces characterized by textual fidelity, solid acting, historically accurate costumes and settings. And boring. For what works on the page, does not work on the screen or stage. Fidelity to text does not guarantee a successful transition to film.

Then along came this man … Andrew Davies and showed that the most satisfying Jane Austen movies are not just translations but transformations.

No adaptation can claim absolute fidelity to the original text. The very act of translating a written narrative into cinema or onto stage involves a process of selection, alteration and re-invention. This process is further complicated when the adaptation rakes place in a different cultural context from the original. Any adaptation is going to reflect the historical moment in which they were conceived and produced. Onscreen and onstage versions of Jane Austen cannot then, for many, many reasons, be faithful translations.

And in addition, we lose the narrator’s voice. What stage and film has to do, is replace Jane Austen’s voice with image.

So what is the writer about? Let’s go back and look at Austen writing and her intended audience. For a writer writes with an audience in mind. Although often described as a satirist of her society, Austen was also a professional writer with an eye towards sales, especially when publishing was self-funded. She wanted to sell books, or in film/theatre jargon, put “bums on seats”. So we can see Austen as both a protofeminist and a supporter of the conservative values of her time. Her novels suggest an understanding of the world in terms of how people connect with each other. So I would like to propose that the best Austen adaptations explore these connections in a way which relates to the cultural context in which they written and produced.

As the focus novel of the festival is Sense & Sensibility, let us first look at the Emma Thompson – Ang Lee Sense & Sensibilty of 1995. I am assuming we have all read the book. And I am assuming that a huge majority will have seen the film, which deals with the legalities of women’s inheritance and lack of access to paid work more bluntly than Austen does in the book. Why? Perhaps because Austen could assume a knowledge of these manners in her reading audience that we, a hundred years later, may have very little knowledge of.

Did Austen mean to write a commentary on the novels of her time which tended to advocate willful behaviour over the consideration of other’s feelings OR a was she writing about women’s rights? I think her intention was the former. But that would not translate culturally to an audience of the 1990’s and 2000. Yet, the message is not lost. We do understand through the work of Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson that self-indulgence is selfish whilst we grasp how limited life was for women then.

This is, as Austen would say, “all very well”. But what about the realities? How does a screenplay make up for the loss of the author’s voice and observations? They do it in very practical ways. And these ways are written as directions in the actual body of the script – which you, of course, don’t read because what you see is the end product. You go to see a film or play, you don’t settle down to read the script of it (unless you are a little bit strange, as I am) .

One of the first ways the writer takes you there is through costumes.
1. Costumes: Much of the story of the film is conveyed though visual images which use a variety of costume codes.

(play except of Willoughby’s rescue). Note from this:
• Willoughby is rampantly masculine – he arrives on a rearing charger. Our Jane, of course, did not need to have him thus – the fact he is out hunting with his gun and dogs says everything the readers of the time would need to know about his masculinity. Current day audiences however, would not get that connection. But we certainly understand the rearing horse, caped male image.
• Marianne becomes sexualized – her naked limbs are visible through her wet clothes.
• Willougby enters the room and with him comes light and colour – sunshine, blues and greens.
Earlier, we have seen Elinor riding with Edward. Her riding costume is much more elegant than her day dresses and tells us that Elinor, as Miss Dashwood of Norland, had the means to be as fashionable as her sister-in-law Fanny. Thomspon invented a scene here where Elinor, unable to take her horse to Barton cottage is saying goodbye to it and Edward attempts to tell her of his problem.

In this scene, Hugh Grant is buttoned up (picture). Throughout the film, he is never seen without his coat and high collar and stock. His costume symbolizes his repression. Colonel Brandon is more interestingly costumed. He begins in funereal black, then in sporting gear , then in shirtsleeves. His waistcoats are as elegant as Willoughby’s. Throughout the film he is gradually undressed until outside Marianne’s sickroom where he is coatless, shirt unbuttoned, hair completely tousled.

As heroic as Willoughby ever was. Finally, Brandon is magnificently masculine in a colonel’s red-coat dress uniform at this wedding.
Costuming for film and stage is an integral part of characterization.

2. Character: Emma Thompson’s script uses film techniques to perform the role of narrator. It is a very detailed screenplay. Images replace words. Fanny Dashwood’s deduction of a coin from the landlord’s tip shows us how miserly she is. She checks for a hallmark on a butter knife and we know she is a snob.

There is a direction which reads The use of the Christian name – and in such a loving tone – stops ELINOR’S breath altogether . And we know how Elinor feels.

The very beginning of the film sets up the characters – let us revisit that. Play film. Before we even meet the main characters we know their father has died and despite his pleas, his son, through the machinations of his wife, is not going to honour his promises to materially help his step mother and sisters. Then we see Marianne alone, indulging her grief at the piano, whilst Elinor addresses the servants. As Marianne wanders around, adrift in a sea of mourning, Elinor wraps gifts for those same servants. Elinor is behaving as her mother should.

In the more recent Andrew Davies BBC adaptation, there is quite a different beginning. (play film) Immediately, the film becomes about something else. We are introduced to Willoughby first. I shall talk about what this means a little later.

3. Action.
On film narrative is played out through action. We don’t have Austen’s voice in our minds. Instead, we have the writer and director’s interpretation of Austen’s voice.
Marianne’s and Willougby’s relationship develops, in the novel, through poetry and speeches of sensibility. True for the time, but uncomfortable for contemporary actors and their audience. So in the Thompson film, they are replaced with fast movements – curricle rides, whirling dances and treatment of scenes with erotic intensity.

And you have to refer to the cutting of a lock of Marianne’s hair here. It is almost embarrassing. Certainly sexually charged. Jane Austen had Margaret tell Elinor of the action. Margaret, being young, is innocent of the sexual implication and sees it only as a pledge to marry. So cleverly Austen escaped any charge of impropriety whilst her more knowledgeable readers understand the strong sexual tone of the event.
This of course is the acknowledgement of the power of sensibility. It is a code word for the desires of the unruly body. And it is borne out by Marianne’s collapse after Willoughby’s desertion. She is unable to sleep, eat, is constantly crying and half fainting. Austen places her always in the bedroom as though unable to tear herself away from the bed and its failed promise of passion requited. At times, Marianne is hysterical on the bed. Austen’s imagination is working like a filmmaker’s here. She is writing the script to a performance of mental and physical agony,
Two hundred years later, Winslet has to perform this in a meaningful way to a very different audience.

Ang Lee said that “the Climax is the Cleveland sequence, the most cinematic in the movie”. Fortunately, where the film was being shot, had a strange twisted hedge called the Brain Hedge Deformed long ago by a freeze, it has been deliberately maintained ever since. Shot in an eerie blue light it becomes a visual symbol of Marianne’s collapse.

Both Austen and Thompson attack sensibility here. From the text “ from {Cleveland’s Grecian Temple”, her eye … could fondly rest on the fartherest ridge of the hills on the horizon and fancy that their summit Combe Magna might be seen. In such moments of precious, of invaluable misery, she rejoiced in tears of agony to be at Cleveland”.
In the Thompson script Marianne stand atop the hill in the pouring rain and wind whispering Shakespeare’s sonnet through frozen lips.

Brandon now reprises the romantic gesture of Willoughby and carries the collapsed and ill (rather than sexually excited) Marianne back to the house. The difference between the two men, however, tells us all we need to know about the difference between sense and sensibility. Instead of Willoughby’s charming courtesy Rickman gives us an exhausted, soaked, trembling man incapable of speaking. This has been traumatic for him. It shows on his body.

He recovers and remains a man of sense “ He, meanwhile, whatever he might feel, acted with all the firmness of a collected mind, made every necessary arrangement with the utmost dispatch, and calculated with exactness the time in which she might look for his return. Not a moment was lost in delay of any kind. The horses arrived, even before they were expected and Colonel Brandon only pressing her hand with a look of solemnity, and a few words spoken too low to reach her ear, hurried into the carriage.”
In the film, Brandon flings himself, black cape billowing (Rickman always does the cape thing best), gallops off into the sunset.

The film then moves into what Ang Lee envisioned as the climax. This is Marianne’s near-death experience. Marianne has to suffer more. In the script directions, Marianne is bled by the doctor and “Elinor carries a bowl of her sister’s blood into the darkness.” It is a sacrifice. Marianne must pay with her body the sins of sensibility. She lies like a sacrificial virgin on a white bed. When she does finally recover, it is as though she has been reborn.
But this is not Marianne’s story. It is Elinor’s. Elinor’s voice is closest to Austen’s. Although Marianne’s experiences are more extreme, eventually our sympathies are with Elinor who suffers too. Except for Elinor, there is no escape into hysteria or illness.

From the very beginning of the film there are images of Elinor alone. Not out in the fields indulging in romantic solitude but indoors, making the best of her prison like life. Just as Jane Austen herself does. Her only relief from this imposed loneliness is the company of Edward, who reacts with quiet charm to her grief. He is the only one who seems to see how she suffers. And she is the only one who manages to view things objectively. When Willougby is forced to leave, later in the film, the mother, Marianne and Margaret each go to their room to indulge in a fit of crying. The film shows us Elinor, left alone on the stairs, with a cup of tea. It says so much.
Elinor’s emotional life, which cannot be realized with Edward, is channeled towards her sister. At Marianne’s deathbed do we see, finally, Elinor passionate. Stroking Marianne’s whole body, kissing her hand. – this love is the real love, the bond stronger than the relationships they have with their men. This is clear in the film. This is not to deny the happy endings both the film and book give us but decisions such as leaving out Willoughby’s visit to Cleveland reinforce the notion that the sister bond is the strongest. This is a concept the modern woman can relate to – the concept of sisterhood. The modern female audience – the daughters of Sex and the City - can hook into this and empathize.

I would like to look at Andrew Davies 2008/9 version of Sense & Sensibility. We have already seen that beginning. In the novel, it is told second hand but Davies saw it as an important event and chronologically, it happens around the same time as the family having to leave Norland. It is meant to give a sense of danger – this is the world into which Marianne strays. According to Davies, often in Austen’s novels there are subplots of teenage sex, elopements, seductions, betrayals and teenage pregnancies. Somehow, we don’t associate these with Jane Austen. But I must agree with Davies – they are there, when you think about it.

One of Davies’ pet likes is giving the men in Austen more – what he calls – “verve’. “It’s all about how to write the men so that they are interesting and sexually attractive.”

Darcy coming out of the lake in Pride & Prejudice was Davies most famous sexing-up moment.
In Sense & Sensibility he has Edward chopping up wood in the rain. Which didn’t work for me the same way as Colin Firth. Dan Stevens is too weedy. But it does show how repressed Edward is. We see Colonel Brandon hawking as Marianne watches him, we sense his power and gentleness as she does.

Which brings me to the next challenge for the writer / director / producer. Casting. Since Jane Austen’s novels are so much about the inner lives of the characters, much depends on the casting and performances of the actors.

Emma Thompson vs Hattie Moran.
Emma has the looks and is more elegant but was 36 when this was filmed. Hattie was 28 and closer to Elinor’s age of 19. Hattie looks younger and is less self-assured and is quieter. I like, however, that Thompson wrote the adaptation. I think it brings a depth to performance.

Kate Winslet vs Charity Wakefield.
Although Kate was younger at the time of filming than Charity, she looks older. However, Kate’s performance has that edge of wildness to it, that sensibility we expect in Marianne. Her delivery of Austen’s verbatim lines was somewhat better. Charity’s warm smile for Brandon at the beginning is more indicative of Austen’s description of Brandon as the only man in the neighborhood Marianne could have an intelligent conversation with. The smile would have been a director’s decision – we need to remember that.

Gemma Jones vs Janet McTeer
Very different interpretations. Jones’ portrayal is far more fragile and sad. McTeer is very robust. As a director, I would have to sit back and think about this. I should not want Mrs Dashwood to overpower Elinor.

Hugh Grant vs Dan Stevens
They look alike! Edward is described by Austen as solemn and somber. Emma Thompson comically complained that the leading man was prettier than the leading lady! I am not sure I am happy with either casting.

Alan Rickman vs David Morrissey.
Ok. I am openly admitting a prejudice for Alan Rickman who, in my eyes, can do no wrong. In anything. He is my screensaver because of his amazing breath of talent. I think Rickman brings a brooding sexual presence to the role and offers a real alternative to Greg Wise’s Willoughby. Of course, this is not really how Austen wrote him … he is far more asexual in the novel. David Morrissey is probably closer to the Brandon Austen wrote. Certainly in age. But I stand back from this one, having such a vested interest! But note: it seems Rickman is more likely to have military presence.

Greg Wise vs Dominic Cooper
Greg Wise’s Willoughby delivers his lines in a light, teasing way; establishing his charm. When he carries Marianne in from the rain his masculinity is overpowering. He has humour and charm – making his character even more duplicitous. Cooper’s delivery of Willoughby is somewhat petulant and I think, less charming. He does not smile much and I find it harder to believe Marianne’s infatuation.

This last is a good example of the role of the director in creating a character. The director is the third element in bringing Austen to the screen. The director has to make the writer’s work work! As the performance an actor delivers is guided by the director, Cooper’s sulky Willoughby may be contributed as much to John Alexander’s directing as Cooper’s interpretation.

Casting means not only finding someone who can play the role, but someone whom all Austen’s readers who see your adaptation will accept in the role. Someone of whom the audience says “Yes! That is how I imagined them!”

So far, I have spoken only of taking Austen to the Screen. To the Stage is another matter altogether.A stageplay is a very different script to a screen play. Stageplays rely much, much more on dialogue. Screenplays rely more on imagery. So a screenplay will have large sections devoted to describing action. In a stageplay, the action is discovered by the director and actors and developed from the dialogue.

A stage does not have the millions of dollars, locations and resources that film does. Companies have small budgets and costuming can often eat up most of that budget. The more characters on stage, the higher the cost of a cast. This is why professional companies rarely do period dramas. The cost in covering the size of cast and the cost of costumes is prohibitive.
Yet there is an audience, as I found out when I wrote an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice about 15 years ago. The whole season had sold out before we opened.
Problems for a playwright:
• Number of scenes / places. Either reduce these to a manageable three locations or have a minimalist, abstract set which gives a sense of period.
• Rely heavily on costumes to set the mood.
• Double up actors wherever possible. Eg in Pride & Prejudice I found the same actor could play Captain Denny and Colonel Fitzwilliam. At a stretch, Lady Lucas can play Lady Catherine de Burgh. Wigs, make-up and costumes become important friends.
• Letters? In Austen, they are an important part of the story telling vital the audience receives the information. But you cannot have every letter read aloud. Sometimes you can employ voice over (which means organizing a date for the actor at a recording studio) to cover action or scene change; or you create dialogue to replace letters.
• Keeping to a reasonable time frame. Andrew Davies may be able to make a 5 hour mini-series. The most you can ask of an audience is about 2 and a half hours. Something has to give.

In an adaptation of Sense & Sensibility, which I am currently working on, I will make Margaret an unseen character. Child actors provide all sorts of headaches for theatres. They cannot work two nights in a row if there is a school day in between. This means rehearsing two Margarets. She is an important figure in Sense & Sensibility – she is the woman yet to be. Jane Austen’s vision of future woman. We know Margaret will not bow to the conventions which bind Elinor and Marianne. She will carve her own way. Be a solo traveler as her fascination with geography and disregard of gender roles suggest. On stage, she will always be off-stage, being called by the others.
Like Emma Thompson, I will not write in Lady Middleton and Lucy Steele’s sister. Their presence in the novel is enlivening but serves no purpose on a stage. Whilst they round out the novel, they would affect the theatricality of a production.

I would like to posit the following; the most successful “adaptations” of Austen’s work are those which have the courage to be their own creation, to exist as art works by themselves rather than to faithfully re-create Austen’s texts. The journey of taking Austen to the screen and to the stage demands from the writer a recognition of historical difference between Austen’s text and the intended audience. I would also like to offer this heresy – film and stage adaptations have brought a new readership to Jane Austen. Her work is no longer the province of the HSC English class or University classics faculty. Film has sent a horde of young, ordinary women back to the book for a richer, deeper experience of the story and given Austen a certain immortality.

The challenge for not only the writer, but the director and actor too is to find the image language which brings Austen’s work to a distant, new audience.

Macdonald, Gin and Andrew F. Jane Austen on Screen CUP. Cambridge 2003.
British Broadcasting Company 3/12/09
Millard, Rosie . Sunday Times. 3/12/09

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Jane Austen Festival Canberra

For all those addicted to Jane Austen. A wonderful few days to be had. We are heading back next year - and it promises to be bigger and better than before. The theme will be Northanger Abbey, as Aylwen wants to create a "gothic" theme for those younger Austen fans.
Will post the transcript of my presentation shortly.

On Stage ... after 27 years!

So, after 27 years I have returned to the stage as Martha In "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf'! Exhausting but challenging and rewarding. Workshop Theatre production.
But I am still writing too ... if you want to know ...