“It’s not going to be slow and polite,” says Geordie Brookman. The artistic director of State Theatre Company (STC) is staging an adaptation of the literary classic Sense and Sensibility next month that’s a world away from the solemnity of previous versions.
The adaptation of the Jane Austen novel – written by award-winning US actress and playwright Kate Hamill – is full of “invention and silliness and joy,” says Brookman. With actors on roller skates and ’90s pop songs reworked for the ukulele, this is not your grandmother’s Austen.
“[Hamill is] one of the first people to really capture Austen’s spirit on stage,” says Brookman. “I think quite often when people attempt to adapt Austen it can be a little overly serious, a bit frozen and a bit grave.”
The novel – originally published anonymously by Austen under the pen name “A Lady” – follows the story of Mrs Dashwood and her three daughters in Regency-era England. Following the death of her husband, the financially ruined Mrs Dashwood moves her family to a small cottage. The ensuing story depicts encounters with love and romance for her eldest daughters: the sensible Elinor and the wild, romantic Marianne.
“What Kate does really beautifully is she captures the sense of joy that Jane Austen has found in humanity,” says Brookman. “Austen was someone who believed in love, she believed in the better side of people.”
The STC production is a vibrant interpretation with pink and aqua set design inspired by filmmaker Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and David LaChapelle’s pop-surrealist photographic style. “It’s a strange amalgam … a weirdly accurate rendering of a Regency-era English drawing room,” says Brookman. “It immediately draws you into that period but lets you know [that] that’s not how the show’s going to work.”
It's also the fourth and final performance of the STC Ensemble, whose repertoire includes Macbeth, A Doll’s House, and Patricia Cornelius’s In the Club.
The ensemble initiative, which secured work for six Adelaide actors over 18 months, showcased the artists’ versatility. “They may as well be different actors,” says Brookman, who directed each of the four productions. “Every one of the six [actors] has had to look into different parts of their range.”
“The other three shows we’ve created have all been quite heavy drama,” he adds. “I hope that’s part of the pleasure, the audience having gone on a journey with these performers, and seeing what a range of roles they can adapt to.”
Music by composer Stuart Day plays into the timelessness of the novel’s themes. The score, which is largely ’80s and ’90s pop songs reworked into Regency-era arrangements, will be played live – some on piano and ukulele. For Brookman, this unconventional approach “conjures up that ... strange combination of joy and heartbreak” and connects modern audiences with the emotion of the work.
While purists may dismiss a playful reimagining of Austen’s classic text, Brookman maintains the production honours the narrative’s essence. “It remains a story about two sisters and their differing approaches to life and love,” he says.
Actor Rachel Burke agrees. “Expect the unexpected,” she says with a laugh. “But I think [playwright Kate Hamill] has kept the essence of the romance and quirkiness of the characters. There’s so much raucous fun and humour.”
Burke, with the ensemble and three guest actors, is delighted to finish their string of shows with a comedic work. “You have to be incredibly brave,” she says, about creating comedy on stage.
Brookman is also looking forward to some levity. “We’re really proud of the work we did with those shows but [Sense and Sensibility] feels like a really liberating way to finish the adventure together.”
Sense and Sensibility will run from May 4 to 26 at the Dunstan Playhouse.