Ask yourselves this: what’s the one thing that can get an introverted book nerd to leave the house in coronatimes?
If your answer was A Jane Austen Thing, you would be correct.
It’s been a long time since I did a coronavirus-related post, and that’s partly because for the past few months, things in Croatia seemed to be going okay. Sure, our case numbers were rising, there were quite a few outbreaks in nightclubs and bars and officials hurriedly appearing in the media blaming young people for being… well, young people, but for the most part we were enjoying the summer, travelling, seeing friends. Apart from the fact that we had to don masks whenever we entered a shop, life seemed to have more or less gone back to normal.
But of course things are never quite that simple. Now, lest you think I spent the past few months being incredibly irresponsible with my health and the health of others, let me assure you that I was definitely being very cautious. Yes, I travelled and saw friends, but we all took great care and I don’t think a single one of us forgot for a moment that despite all appearances, this was not life back to normal, much as we all desperately wished it were.
Then autumn came, and suddenly it was too cold to have drinks on terraces, go for long walks, or travel. Once again, we were asked to give up many of the things that make life enjoyable.
Now, one of the many pleasures I was forced to give up this year was going to the theatre. And yes, I am entirely aware of just how privileged that sounds. If it helps, please imagine me wearing a Burberry coat and swilling expensive merlot as I utter these words.
But the theatre was honestly one of the places I loved going. Stepping into the old Austro-Hungarian wedding cake of a national theatre in Zagreb felt like stepping into another, wonderful world. It was very much a ritual that I shared with family and friends, and since we had a subscription (please feel free to add jodhpurs and a small but elegant mare called Celeste to your mental image of me at this point), it was something we did quite regularly.
So when Corona came along, that all went away. And after spending the summer learning how to balance some semblance of a social life with the new measures and reality that we were living under, I was definitely dreaming about a return to the theatre (I’m now riding Celeste to a regatta in your heads, aren’t I?).
So after several chilly months at home once again, what else could tempt me back to the theatre but A Jane Austen Thing? Yep, a few weeks ago we finally caved and went to see a ballet at the National Theatre. The ballet in question would be Pride and Prejudice, naturally.
Of course the theatre wasn’t quite the same as we remembered. From the entrance, where we had to leave our phone numbers so they could trace contacts, to the half-empty auditorium with socially distanced seating, to the masks that every visitor was required to wear the entire performance. I walked in not knowing what to expect.
But of course, once the lights went down, whatever magic it is that makes the theatre tick (and my personal theory involves small but feisty sprites that live in the air vents and only speak in Shakespearean verse, but sadly I don’t have any hard and fast evidence yet) took over.
I can’t be sure whether the ballet itself was any good. I think I was so carried away by the whole experience that I would have cheered watching an angry man splashing jelly all over the stage and ranting about his accountant and called it a good show. But as it happens I think it was quite a good ballet. Pleasant music, pretty costumes, great dancers.
It did get me thinking about how much of Jane Austen is in the words, though. At one point a friend who had read Austen so long ago that she’d forgotten the entire story asked me, in no uncertain terms, what on earth was going on. And even I, who have read Pride and Prejudice so many times that it would probably be easier if every few months I just heated the books to a very high temperature and inhaled the smoke, found myself struggling to keep up.
As with most Austen adaptations, the subtlety and irony of Austen’s original dissipates. What’s left is the gooey centre, the romantic love story that sets so many hearts aflutter. For a while I enjoyed myself immensely, lamenting internally how they’d failed to capture what makes Austen a truly great writer and storyteller.
I’ve seen other literary classics adapted for ballet – Romeo and Juliet, which most definitely works, because sometimes all you want to do with all that teenage angst is dance it off, and Les Liasons Dangereuses, which decidedly doesn’t, mostly because it’s an epistolary novel and too much of the content and the subtlety is in the language, rather than the characters and the story. Watching the dancers in Pride and Prejudice exchanging letters with frequency, I couldn’t help but remember how important letters are in the original novel. There’s the letter that Jane has been taken ill at Netherfield, the letter about Lydia’s elopement, and of course, Mr Darcy’s letter, which is at the very heart of the novel and to some extent, what the entire story hinges on. So it would seem inevitable that a ballet would have to get rid of a whole lot of this subtlety and linguistic finesse.
But when I started thinking a little more carefully, I realised that in fact the ballet did some very clever things. To mention just one example: Mr Collins, the prim, ridiculous clergyman who proposes to Lizzy had a bizarre trademark style of dancing. He was stiff and robotic, which was very much in keeping with Mr Collins’ character, but this style also required him to, quite frequently, roll about on the floor. At first it seemed rather ridiculous to me, as the one thing I cannot imagine the self-important Mr Collins doing is rolling about on the floor like a toddler. But thinking about it a little more, it’s actually a strangely good way to illustrate his character, and the way he’s very quick to lick the boots of Lady Catherine, Mr Darcy, and basically anybody who has more money or status that he himself does. Not to mention that it makes him look a bit of a fool, which is exactly what Austen makes him out to be.
So despite my instinctive fear that Austen would not translate well to a medium like this, I was pleasantly surprised. But ultimately, what made this performance was really how pleasant it was to finally be back in the theatre and able to complain, or praise to the skies, a particular performance. By the time the final curtain went down, it became clear to me that I wasn’t the only person thinking this. The applause was enthusiastic and long, the dancers took more bows than I could count, and although the small number of people inside meant that the theatre emptied very quickly after the final curtain went down, it was clear that we’d all had a similar experience. All this only goes further towards my theory that sometimes a little Austen is just what you need to lift your spirits. It may not be the vaccine that we’re all hoping for so desperately, but it does go some way towards easing the tension as we wait for the cure to come at last.