Reading Histories and Drawing Pullets (the play by Kate Napier in which I play Jane Austen) was originally meant to be an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its publication. However, Kate, never one to opt for the easy route, began to work through Jane’s early writings and a wholly different play emerged and instead Jane takes the audience on through almost a Masterclass on writing the perfect Austen novel. I was cast as Jane fairly early on and once in receipt of the script, and I’m being totally honest here, I was scared witless! A lot of my lines are taken directly from Jane’s letters and you begin to see that she was a far cry from the demure, bonneted spinster, popular culture would have you believe. She had a biting wit and, in some of her surviving letters to Cassandra and Anna the sarcasm and cattiness is hilarious. Despite this, I went into the early rehearsals, back straight, doing
the full prim and proper “Austen” acting. It was at that juncture that Kate pointed out that the reason I had been cast was because our senses of humour (mine and Jane’s ) were very similar and I should embrace that, as the prim and proper just wasn’t working. Over the next few weeks my eyes were opened up to Jane the gossip
“Mr Richard Harvey is to be married, but as it is a great secret and only known to half the neighbourhood, you must not mention it”
Jane the flirt -
“You will not expect to hear that I was asked to dance, but I was, by that gentleman we met that Sunday with Captain D’Auvergne. We have always kept up a bowing acquaintance since, and being pleased with his black eyes I spoke to him at the ball, which brought upon me this civility. But I do not know his name, and he seems so little at home in the English Language, that I believe his black eyes may be the best of him!”
And Jane the just plain cutting –
“Provided she will now leave off having bad headaches and being pathetic, I can allow her, I can wish her to be happy”
The last one always used to make me smile.
As Jane part of my role in the play was to introduce her characters to show how they develop from her early writings in almost caricature form to well rounded, believable characters in her better known novels. Three actors, two women and a man, play characters from Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility as well as lesser known works such as Love and Friendship, A Collection of Letters, The Three Sisters & Lesley Castle, to name but a few. The audience get to see how those characters developed into the ones we know and love to day and also how Jane was exceedingly frugal when it came to names – Dashwood, Edward, Sophia, Willoughby & Lady Susan crop up again and again
Reading Histories and Drawing Pullets had its debut at Chawton House, in the Great Hall. The magnitude of this was not lost on me, and in the moments before stepping into the room, when I was on my own in the corridor next to the Ballroom whilst the other actors took their places within the performance space, I must admit I had a real moment of panic. Many of my lines make direct reference to Chawton and there I was, 200 yrs or so down the line, speaking Jane’s words and standing in a hallway in which she would have walked. Kate’s advice of “Take the brain monkeys by the hand and walk with them” came to mind as I began to wobble. Brain monkeys in hand I walked in to the great hall knowing that the text I was putting my faith in had delighted people for years so, really there was nothing (apart from screwing it up) to worry about!
Jane Austen is a wonderful role to play and I was delighted to have been able to spend time reading through the letters, her juvenilia and early works. I even managed to have a read through what is left of Anna’s (Anna LeFroy - Jane’s niece) novel, as I make frequent comments on that throughout the play. It was really interesting to get to see the other side of Jane. I know that ideas of who Jane Austen was are beginning to change from the romantic to the more, and infinitely more interesting and amusing, realistic, and it’s a great honour to take part in something that has a part to play in that. Kate Napier has pulled together a play that will intrigue those new to Austen and delight staunch Austenites. Artifice, the theatre company responsible for producing Reading Histories & DrawingPullets, specialises in classical plays in beautiful places, hence the Chawton link and the setting for its debut couldn’t have been more perfect. Our next outing was the stunning Hatchlands Park near Guildford where we performed in the music room. The rolling hills visible through the large Georgian windows became the landscape of Sense and Sensibility and yet again the play was warmly received. Our next outing is at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath in the Guildhall on Sept 22nd, in the meantime, the reading continues......