By Danielle Farrow
Oh, to be such an accomplished young lady! In Dyad Productions’ Austen’s Women, Rebecca Vaughan becomes thirteen of Austen’s female characters, ranging across status and age, with well-known favourites such as Lizzie Bennett (Pride and Prejudice), Emma Woodhouse (Emma) and Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) sharing boudoir space with more minor and lesser known characters, such as Mary Stanhope (short epistolary story, The Three Sisters), Mrs Norris (Mansfield Park) and Diana Parker (unfinished novel, latterly known as Sanditon).
With great clarity in framing descriptions – taken from Austen – simple props and accessories, Vaughan – directed by Gareth Armstrong – slips into her various and varying roles with ease and confidence. In a private room, with wooden furniture (garment-laden screen, chair and desk with useful drawer and mirror), we see our hostess acquire well-chosen layers of period clothing, starting in corset, petticoat and housecoat and ending fit for a ball. The changes are always apt and flow well, with degrees of lighting coverage highlighting the differences between narrator and characters.
From the start – amusingly considering differences between men and women in love – Vaughan shows herself to be highly accomplished as a solo performer, using wry wit, fine vocal and physical skills – including mobile facial expressions – and a very engaging manner when addressing the audience that includes without putting anyone on the spot nor seeming merely generic. She is able to move between understated humour (especially important for Austen), outright comedy and moving emotion. Austen’s ironies are clearly presented, and relished, with Vaughan’s own sense of fun enhancing the palpable enjoyment of her audience-visitors.
A few aspects were not wholly successful. It was clear that the confidences of Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey) regarding her own unlikelihood of being a heroine were adapted from third person narration, which jarred a little despite the pleasing characterisation. Occasionally the nasal quality adopted for the slightly more caricatured / less pleasant women became a little wearing, the first view of Elizabeth Bennett seemed somewhat tense and over-driven in acting terms (rather than simply Lizzie’s situation), and there were times Vaughan’s technical accomplishments seemed stronger than her connection to character. There is no doubt, however, that this lady is most personable and highly accomplished.
This production is intriguing for those who might like to consider the thoughts and behaviour of women of the 19th century. The women seen here cover a gamut of emotions and situations and are interesting in their own right, out of context and viewed individually. Above all, though, Austen’s Women is a treat not just for Austen fans but also for anyone who enjoys human foibles, viewed with warmth and entertainingly brought to life.