“Principled and moral, but not dull” – that’s how director Colin Blumeneau regards Jane Austen’s most controversial heroine Fanny Price.
The moral centre of Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny has been described as “morally detestable” by Kingsley Amis, and was called “insipid” by Austen’s own mother.
But it’s not a reading Blumeneau has ever accepted, something which playwright Tim Luscombe has backed up in his stage version of the novel.
“The adaptation has given her a rigidity of backbone that none of the other characters have,” says Blumeneau. “She’s strong, which makes her attractive. It is interesting to see her in the flesh – she is a determined young woman, rather than a wet, prissy character. It means the play can bounce along very nicely.”
Mansfield Park is the tale of Fanny’s arrival on the titular estate having been taken from poverty in Portsmouth as the eldest of eight children by her rich uncle Sir Thomas.
Constantly reminded of her low status by her aunt Mrs Norris, Fanny finds herself falling for her kind cousin Edmund, while being ignored by her other cousins Maria and Tom.
When vivacious brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford move into the local parsonage, the atmosphere at Mansfield Park changes, especially when the idea of putting on a play is suggested.
Reducing such an epic novel down to two hours had been a challenge for Luscombe, but it meant the problems of the personalities of the characters could be brought out starkly, while keeping much of the humour of the piece.
“Tim had a tough old time,” admits Blumeneau. “His first draft was longer than Hamlet!
“We worked on it together to make it as muscular as we could without losing its character.
“Avoiding any verbosity enabled him to chop out lots of stuff that makes the novel what it is but also turned it into a very individual play which is truthful to what Austen originally wrote. It’s quite remarkable.”
This version of Mansfield Park is performed by eight actors, playing 18 characters. Financial reasons meant the wonderfully indolent Mrs Bertram and her pug remain offstage, and Maria’s wayward sister Julia has been left out of the story.
But the wonderfully mean Mrs Norris, slow-witted Mr Rushworth and glamorous Mary Crawford are still present and correct, and there is even a chance to see a short scene from Lovers’ Vows, the unsuitable play the children decide to perform while their guardian Sir Thomas is away.
Original playwright Elizabeth Inchbald was born and lived not far from the company’s home at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, the country’s only Regency theatre still in operation.
“It was not Inchbald’s best play, but it was a cause celebre in its time,” says Bluemeneau, who up until this summer was artistic director at the theatre, and organised a rehearsed reading of Lovers’ Vows as part of the original production’s run.
“It was about a woman trying to influence the destination of her life rather than waiting for a man to do it. It covered issues of illegitimate birth and out-of-wedlock sex, so for a family like the Bertrams to perform it would have been fairly shocking.
“Edmund and Fanny see this but nobody else really minds. Our audience understand why it might be shocking.”
Indeed Blumeneau points out that during the Regency period all of Austen’s characters faced ruin should they stray.
“The women have no way of surviving if they fall, and the fall is so easy,” he says, adding that his current research into Henry Fielding for a forthcoming play about his life was adding insights to the period.
“Although Fielding was 80 years earlier, that sense of danger was really prevalent. At any moment something could go wrong, and there was no support system – no NHS or Government support.
“Fortune and reputation were all and even if you had fortune, if your reputation deserted you, you were on your own. The backdrop of Austen’s world has more richness than most people credit.
“This was a country at war, we had gone past the battle of Trafalgar, but were yet to have Waterloo. If we add into that slavery and reform we get a sense of how narrow our vision of that period is. Sir Thomas’s fortune is based on sugar receipts from Antigua – his lifestyle is funded by slavery.
“Most of the action happens in Mansfield Park, where people think about impossibly beautiful landscapes and beautiful women riding white horses. In fact the Regency was one of the most decadent periods in history.”
Mansfield Park is at Devonshire Park Theatre, Compton Street, Eastbourne, from Tuesday, November 13, to Saturday, November 17. Starts 7.45pm, matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm, tickets from £13.50. For more information, call 01323 412000