When we first set out to adapt Northanger Abbey we didn't think too much about the potential difficulties, which was probably a good thing! Austen has so many fans around the world, and you have to respect that in your treatment of the material. It was our enjoyment of the original novel that made us want to adapt it in the first place, and I hope our fondness for Austen's writing comes across in the show. I think some people may look at the production photos and assume it's some kind of spoof, which it absolutely isn't. We use puppets help us tell the story, but they're not remotely incongruous. In fact, thanks to the wonderful way puppetry works, you quickly forget that they're puppets at all, and simply see the characters they're playing.
Fortunately there's a lot of dialogue in the book, some of which can be used verbatim, but then you have to decide how you're going to bridge the gaps and tell the rest of the story. We felt very strongly that the authorial voice was an important part of the novel and a big part of Austen's style – even today her wit feels remarkably fresh and we didn't want to lose any of that, so we ended up with a narrator character. He's quite good fun in fact, and allows a playful connection with the audience too.
The other big issue we faced is that even though Northanger Abbey is a relatively short novel, that still translates into a lot of stage time. We knew we wanted our piece to be no longer than an hour and a half, so we had to make some decisions about what we were going to lose. It's difficult because you're always aware that you may be cutting someone's favourite character or moment, but it has to be done. In the end we asked ourselves what story we wanted to tell and that helped us focus and decide what was important. We concentrated on Catherine's story, but I think we also got a lot of the humour of the novel, and the faux gothic feel of it. Those elements have been missed in a few other versions I've come across, and I think that's a great shame.
Once we had a version of the story we felt happy with, and that was about the right length, we still had another challenge to face. Our performance features only two actors, who also operate all the puppets, so we had to be certain that the script we'd come up with was actually physically possible. There are a lot of scenes in the novel, mostly in Bath, where there are a fairly large number of characters present. Obviously it wasn't feasible for us to have hundreds of people appearing at a ball or party, so we had to find ways to deal with that. People are still surprised though, when they see the show, at how many characters we manage to get on stage at once!
We're very proud of the work we've ended up with, and very pleased with the reactions we've had from audiences everywhere. We've had people who have never read Austen watch the show and love it, and we've had life-long Austen fans that loved it too, which is just fantastic. This year we're taking our version of Northanger Abbey to the Brighton Fringe Festival, the Oxford Fringe, Ryedale Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and we're very excited about it all! Ideally we're hoping this will then lead to a proper tour, so that we can share our work with as many people as possible. We look forward to seeing everyone at one of our shows in future!
Box Tale Soup's Northanger Abbey can be seen at Brighton Fringe Festival on May 11th & 12th, and June 1st & 2nd at 1.00pm, at Upstairs At Three And Ten. Tickets are £9.50 or £8 concession, for booking details visit www.boxtalesoup.co.uk/Productions.
About Noel Byrne
Noel has been involved in everything from Shakespeare on stage to voice and motion capture for video games, often creating and devising new work, including pieces for Manchester's Contact Theatre and London's Royal Court. Noel has also worked on television, appearing in the BBC's Doctor Who, The One Show and Mission 2110, among others. He has even been a dinosaur.
In addition, Noel is also an award-winning street performer, who has performed around the world, and can regularly be seen at London's famous Covent Garden.