Sunday, 1 October 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Jane Austen Project, Kathleen A. Flynn (2017)

Rachel Katzman, the protagonist of Kathleen A. Flynn’s debut novel, The Jane Austen Project, is offered a chance to do what many fans of the author of Sense and Sensbility and Emma must have longed for — to go back in time to meet the novelist herself, and, hopefully, unearth a long lost manuscript.


On reading the premise, I was expecting a riotous Austen/sci-fi mash up — Pride and Prejudice with time lords rather than zombies. What I got instead was — and it almost feels strange to write this — one of the most realistic depictions of time travel I’ve ever come across.

By this I don’t mean that Flynn has a well-developed theory about how to warp the space/time continuum — the mechanics of the operation remain unclear — but that she has devoted considerable effort to imagining what the experience of suddenly finding yourself in 1815 might be like, describing the sounds, tastes and smells, and allowing us to really feel it, rather than just marvel at the pretty costumes.

The impressiveness of this imaginative leap is added to by the fact that Rachel herself isn’t an early twenty-first century tourist. Her world is alien to us too. It’s one where Jane Austen’s cottage is the site of a sprawling theme park, Austenland, and where the Old British rule the world through a second, even more domineering empire.

Kathleen A. Flynn
Rachel approaches 1815 as she would any other exotic locale (she’s a medical doctor who’s travelled extensively) but the challenges here are different to any she’s experienced before. She and her colleague, Liam Finucane, struggle with how to rent suitable accommodation, secure an introduction to Henry Austen and his set, hire and manage servants. Any aberration from normal social protocol and etiquette could be the difference between their mission’s success and failure, adding an almost thriller-like layer to the usual web of Austenian misunderstanding and misalliance.

Rachel is also a mouthpiece for Flynn to explore why so many of us love Austen — for her keen understanding of humanity rather than a hackneyed ‘marriage plot’. It’s a joy to have a heroine who can love the period without subscribing to its values. Rachel is more comfortable with casual sex than her male colleague, Liam. She’s come armed (literally) with contraceptives so as not to deal with one particular aspect of early nineteenth-century hygiene. She’s the doctor on this mission even if Liam is posing as one.

What I liked best about the novel was the small canvas on which the story was depicted. The number of locations is limited — an echo of what Jane Austen’s life was like — and Flynn manages to introduce high drama with only limited corset ripping and surprisingly few deviations from behaviour one could imagine as contemporary.

I had two slight criticisms. First the ending suffers from the usual paradoxes of time travel and, second, the romance plot wasn’t as compelling and did feel a little predictable (perhaps mirroring where the writer’s interests really lie?).  There were only so many times I wanted to hear about Liam smelling like bay leaves and a taciturn Darcy-esque character is a little unbelievable when he’s just been blasted back centuries.

But, overall, The Jane Austen Project was a pleasant surprise — quirky and highly researched while being eminently readable. A quick shout out to mentions of the disastrous Bronte Projects too — these were very entertaining!

Do you know of any 21st-century novels about the 19th-century you think the Secret Victorianist should read next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Traces of Nineteenth-Century North America: The Secret Victorianist in Ontario and Hawaii

An accusation I hear a lot back home as a European transplant, living in the US, is that America has no history.

“How can you bear to live somewhere there’s no culture?” I’ve been asked, more than once. “Aren’t you the one who likes reading about the past?”

Yet, everywhere I’ve travelled since moving to this continent, I’ve found that history, and in particular nineteenth-century history, is very much alive and well in the popular imagination. Canada and the United States’ comparative youth makes this century (my century) loom even larger, and the sites and monuments that comprise their visible history, while fewer in number, seem to have a greater influence on the shaping of the countries’ current national identities.

Today I want to talk about two very different places I’ve visited in the last month — Fort George in Ontario, Canada and Iolani Palace, once home to Hawaiian royalty in Honolulu.


Fort George

Located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Fort George was a British military structure that housed soldiers and saw combat during the War of 1812.

Today’s reconstruction allows visitors not only to explore buildings designed to mirror those of the early 1800s (living quarters, workshops and the original powder magazine), but also to watch and interact with costumed ‘soldiers’. These re-enactors march, play the fife and drum and shoot rounds from their muskets, with such serious commitment to the tasks at hand that it’s easy to imagine adversarial American troops ranged on the other side of the narrow river.

video


These volunteers bring the place to life (indeed it almost felt at times like we’d accidentally wandered into 1812!) but I couldn’t help but consider their motivations. What was so attractive to these men, women, and, in many cases, children, about reconnecting with the past, and indeed with Canada’s close ties to the British?

In one way it was surreal to hear ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ played so far from England, but then, that’s how it was sung by the Redcoats the world over — no matter how far the march, how deep the ditch or how exhausting the labour, there was always something connecting you to home.


Iolani Palace

At Iolani Palace in Honolulu I certainly wasn’t expecting to see this same reach and influence of empire. But this spectacular royal home (built 1879-1882) out-European-ed many of the stately houses I’ve seen in Britain and beyond.

Portraits at Iolani Palace
It had electric lights before Buckingham Palace, a fact that dazzled visiting dignitaries and notables (I didn’t realise that Robert Louis Stevenson was once received there). Its reception rooms were decked out with portraits of European, as well as Hawaiian, royals. And, while the palace’s exterior seems designed for the temperate climate and in keeping with Hawaiian styles and traditions, once inside the dining room, ballroom, or music room you could have guessed you were anywhere.

The Music Room at Iolani Palace
The palace also served as a gaol for nine months in 1895 for the then independent kingdom’s final queen, Liliʻuokalani, who was forced out of power by the mainland-backed provisional government. In one of the upper bedrooms you can see the quilt she and one of her ladies in waiting stitched during this period, sections of brightly coloured fabric telling the stories of Hawaii’s unification, royalty and republic.

Visiting an American state with a royal past was as strange as hearing stirrings of British spirit in Canada.

The veranda at Iolani Palace
And Iolani Palace also shared something else with Fort George — the site’s reliance on reconstruction and detective work. Many pieces of the royal family’s furniture and other possessions were sold and scattered, but the team here has worked, and is working tirelessly, to recreate a version of the Palace Hawaii’s kings would have recognised.


Where else in North America would you like to see the Secret Victorianist visit? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Dressmaker’s Dowry, Meredith Jaeger (2017)

Meredith Jaeger’s debut novel, The Dressmaker’s Dowry, has a lot going for it — an unusual setting (1870s San Francisco), a well-paced plot and the perfect mix of intrigue, violence and romance.


Yet, getting to the end, I couldn’t help but feel the novel, which alternates between the stories of Sarah, a modern-day MFA student whose past holds a dark secret, and Hanna, a nineteenth-century dressmaker investigating the disappearance of her friend, could have done with better editing.

Reading the novel is a revealing experience for an aspiring novelist, as its cracks expose some of the challenges of writing successful historical fiction:

Dialogue

Jaeger has clearly studied her setting, immersed herself in stories of San Francisco’s poverty and crime and pored over contemporary maps. She weaves facts about the setting into her historical storyline well, bringing the world Hanna lives in to life through sensorial details.

But it’s in her nineteenth-century characters’ dialogue that the illusion slips. Their speech reads as very stiff and lacking in humanity, with old-fashioned phrases (‘lucky wench’, ‘I fret for them’, ‘feminine ailments’) peppered in the midst of twenty-first century sentences.


Building a Connection Between Past and Present

Adopting a dual POV is a common technique among writers of historical fiction today. It allows for more exposition and explanation of the past than a novel entirely set in another time period and gives readers a character to identify with, who ‘could be them’.

Jaeger though makes two fatal errors in how she uses this technique to build a connection between past and present.

First, she not only makes her present day character, Sara, a mouthpiece for expressing opinions about the 1870s (forgivable since this is a character whose actively researching the period), but also uses her to over-emphasize the parallels she wants to draw between the divided society of nineteenth-century SF and the city we see today. Sara drifts into Mary Sue territory, making her own story less emotionally impactful and leading the novel to feel, in parts, like a lecture, where little trust is placed in the reader.

Second, the tie between Sara and Hanna is fraught with coincidence, setting the very premise for the novel on shaky ground, and there hardly seems to be enough contrast between the women — here we are, over one hundred years later, and women are still being ‘saved’ by rich men from one particular, privileged family.


Good and Evil

Finally, Jaeger struggles to keep her novel from slipping into cliché, especially when it comes to depicting her characters. They are all very clearly good or bad, with no reversals in our expectations. Take this description of Robert Havensworth:

'Though he had a handsome face, his green eyes sent a chill down to her bones. His long fingers, adorned with gold rings, wrapped around the head of his cane, radiated power — and the darkness beneath it.'

I mean, would you trust this man?!

Sarah and Hanna are infallible judges of character, and thus so are Jaeger’s readers, making what should be a thrilling race to uncover the ending all too predictable.

Meredith Jaeger
What twenty-first century novel about the nineteenth century would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Art Review: Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, SFMOMA, San Francisco

The Secret Victorianist found herself in San Francisco last week and took the opportunity to see a second exhibition dedicated to the work of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed at the SFMOMA.

'Between the Clock and the Bed' (1940-1943)
The New York City Neue Galerie’s Munch and Expressionism, which I reviewed back in February 2016, had looked at the relationship between the Norwegian painter and his expressionist peers and featured his most enduringly famous painting — ‘The Scream’ (1893). But this SF exhibit was focused on the artist himself, highlighting the synergies between works produced by Munch at very different points in his career and life in its thematic arrangement.

Munch’s numerous self-portraits make up the centrepiece of the show, which takes its title from the 1940-1943 painting ‘Between the Clock and the Bed’, in which the artist stands, his face blurred, apparently waiting for death.

'Self-Portrait with Hand Under Cheek' (1911)
Munch stares out at visitors from every side of the room, thoughtful in pastels (‘Self-Portrait with Hand Under Cheek’, 1911), despairing with a bottle of wine (‘Self-Portrait with Wine’, 1906) and even burning in Hell (‘Self-Portrait in Hell’, 1903), underlying his interest in rendering the psychological in paint.

'Self-Portrait with Wine’ (1906)
With similar artworks side by side, Munch’s obsession with specific scenes and images, sometimes across decades, becomes clear.

‘Self-Portrait in Hell’ (1903)
There’s the death of his fourteen-year-old sister, Johanne Sophie, which he dubs ‘The Sick Child’ and plays with, using various paint techniques.

'The Sick Child' (1907)
‘The Scream’ is recognisable in the dissolving faces of ‘The Kiss’ (1897) and the backdrop to ‘Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair’ (1892).

‘The Kiss’ (1897)
Loneliness pervades the exhibition as the only way to form a relationship with others seems to be to lose something of yourself.

‘Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair’ (1892)
The last work I viewed before exiting the gallery was ‘Eye in Eye’ (1894), a painting where skeletal male and female figures reminiscent of Adam and Eve stare at each other in a contentious, more than romantic, scene. That is the tension, the question Munch brings to life — what is the price of joining your personal psychological drama and pain with another’s?

‘Eye in Eye’ (1894)
Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you’d like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Film Review: The Beguiled (2017)

A little girl weaves in and out of the shadows of trees in Virginia, digging her fingers into the earth and picking mushrooms, before stumbling across a bloodied Union soldier. It sets the mood — dark, visceral and gritty (especially by costume drama standards) — for Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 movie.


Deserter John McBurney (Colin Farrell) finds himself transported from the horrors of battle to the perhaps even more brutal world of a girls’ school, where two teachers (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) and five students (including Elle Fanning) live in intense isolation, waiting for news of the outside world, breath baited in fear (and, in some cases, anticipation) at the thought that Union soldiers may attack, rob from them and rape them.

The film does a beautiful job of bringing us into these women’s world. They stitch, cook, garden with visible effort, compared to the lacklustre embroidery efforts we’re used to seeing in film adaptations of nineteenth-century works. The school’s slaves have fled. There are no men. We almost feel the effort as the girls pump water or lift the hoe.

The lighting is also incredible. The candles aren’t just period props but appear to be the only source of light, giving the film the appearance of a Gothic painting, with girls, dressed in white, flitting through the shadows. The camerawork puts us in the position of a voyeur, peeping into the house and spying from behind tree branches.

Where then does the movie go so wrong?

Despite a talented cast and the gorgeous production, the movie feels vapid. Characters are underdeveloped, motivations unclear, and the dynamics between the women, which have real promise in the early scenes after McBurney’s arrival, go undeveloped. The story has little more depth than the film’s overly revealing trailer and, consequently, there’s no emotional payoff to match the atmosphere.

Dunst and Farrell in particular struggle to make something of their characters’ few lines of feeble backstory and we’re left with so many questions that it’s hard to see this world as three-dimensional at all. It’s more compelling as a series of beautiful tableaux, the viewer’s imagination creating what the filmmakers could not.

What did you think of the 2017 The Beguiled? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Traces of Angria and Gondal

The 5th of June 1826 was a seminal day in the Bronte household. It was the day Patrick Bronte brought his children — Charlotte (10), Branwell (9), Emily (7) and Anne (6) — a set of toy soldiers, which were to become a major part of their literary development.


More accurately, Patrick bought the soldiers for Branwell, the boy, but Charlotte describes how all four children immediately claimed a soldier. Charlotte named hers after the Duke of Wellington, a hero of hers, so of course Branwell chose to favour Bonaparte. Emily’s doll was dubbed ‘Gravey’ for his grave expression and the baby of the family, Anne, found her soldier demoted with the title ‘Waiting Boy’.

The children’s playacting with the soldiers soon turned to written outputs. They crafted tiny books and magazines (such as the one the Secret Victorianist saw at the Morgan Library’s exhibition), designed to be small enough for their dolls to read. And they created worlds — first the Glass Town Confederacy, then Angria, and then, when Emily and Anne became frustrated with their lesser creative roles in the latter’s development, the younger siblings’ world, Gondal.

Glass Town, Angria and Gondal were an incredible blend of the real and imagined, combining the Brontes’ riotous creativity with what they knew of the outside world (its politics, geography and emotional dramas). And the sagas they sparked extended well beyond their childhoods, with creative production of prose and poetry continuing into the group’s twenties. In fact it’s occasionally proved difficult for scholars to identify which of Emily’s poems are Gondal poems and which were inspired by personal feelings, unsurprising given the importance of these worlds to the siblings and the unfortunate loss of all the Gondal prose.

It’s tempting to see the Brontes’ choices of soldiers as indicative of their personalities and later creative outputs. Charlotte, who picked the hero, remains foremost in our thoughts today, Branwell plays the villain, Emily has become a gloomy symbol of the Gothic moors and Anne can’t quite shake her reputation as the quiet one.

It’s easy to read Bronte juvenilia and look for traces of the famous novels the sisters in the family would go on to produce, but, perhaps, we should look for traces of these wild, passionate, collaborative worlds in the stories we’ve grown so familiar with — not be awed by what’s often been judged ‘genius’ but instead see children, playing with their dolls.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist write about next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Secret Victorianist on Governors Island: Castle Williams, NYC

Last weekend, the Secret Victorianist visited Governors Island and explored the fort designed to protect New York City – Castle Williams.

The courtyard at Castle Williams today
Designed by Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams, the man from which the building takes its name, the fortification was constructed between 1807 and 1811. Its circular shape was highly innovative at the time, giving soldiers stationed at the fort’s casements a wider field of range from which to defend New York Harbour.

Entering the fort
Built initially to stave off attack from the British, the castle served as a barracks for Union soldiers during the Civil War, before being repurposed as a military prison, a usage that continued well into the twentieth century.

My favourite part of the building’s history was learning about the years when the Coast Guard was in residence (1966-1997). In their early years on the island, Coast Guard families brought new life to this nineteenth-century fort, as it provided a space for a nursery, meeting rooms and various clubs and studios for the small population.

A model of the original design
It’s hard to imagine the New York of the 1800s, so, today, Castle Williams is an oddity — a nineteenth-century precaution against a threat that never came to fruition, a building that has undergone transformation after transformation, tied to the varied history of Governors Island.

The fort that once sought to protect the city is now dwarfed by it. It is only a backdrop to family outings, cycle parties and picnickers. This weekend Governors Island was overrun by women in pastel pinks knocking back rosé at the annual Pinknic festival, next weekend new boatloads of day-trippers will pause, read a sign about Castle Williams’ past and move on.

Pinknic revellers
Which NYC spots would you like to see the Secret Victorianist to explore next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

A Window to the Past: Victorian Ouseburn, George Whitehead

We may think we have a good idea of what life was like in the nineteenth century, but what of the world outside novels, divorced from royalty, far distant from the gas lamps of London and the dramas attendant on the personalities who came to define an era?

Anne Bronte's sketch of Holy Trinity Church, Little Ouseburn
The journal of George Whitehead (1823-1913), sometime carpenter and consummate busybody, is a portal to such a world. For over 60 years, in journals dedicated to births, marriages, deaths and ‘sundries’, he recorded the comings and goings of life in Yorkshire villages Little Ouseburn and Great Ouseburn, with meticulous detail and limited, if blunt, commentary.

He records everything, from the mundane…

Two gates hung across back lane against Clarkes stack yard corner July 6th 1847

To the dramatic…

John Johnson Mr Woodd’s cowman at Thorpe Green hung himself in the cart horse stable March 14 aged 53 years 1856

Boswell Atkinson of Whixley died Nov 5th he cut his throat Oct 26th Mrs Ibbotson confined Nov 15th & died Nov 18th through Atkinson cutting her throat & shock to the system 1893

To the personal:

Our little pony died suddenly Janry 30th 1858

I cut my great toe nearly off Oct 22nd I went on crutches for one month then a fortnight with the boot front cut off then one week with Father’ boots then began with my own all right 1866

And, as you read on, a picture emerges of a village that’s representative of the great changes the century is witnessing:

I sat at Mr Monkhouse’s Lendal York for my first Cartes devisits 6/- pr dozen August 13th 1864

The eleventh telegraph wire on our high road put up July or Augst, 1891

It’s a fascinating read. You never know what the next sentence will bring and start to feel part of a community you can never enter into.

Equally interesting is the book’s very existence in print. It was published in 1990 with all proceeds going to Holy Trinity Church in Little Ouseburn and mentions three intended audiences in its Editor’s Note – inhabitants of the Ouseburns, historians and those tracing their family history. Many readers, like me, stumble over the journals due to their connection to the Brontes. Anne and Branwell Bronte both worked in the area in the 1840s at Thorp Green, a local manor.

The journals’ existence and survival are exceptional, even if the central life it records is not, and they seem destined for a vibrant afterlife, whether fuelling scholars or looked at as a transportive curiosity.

What would you like to read from the Secret Victorianist next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: To Capture What We Cannot Keep, Beatrice Colin, 2016

It’s 1886 and Paris is divided over the ‘monstrosity’ of a tower being built in its midst. Scottish widow Caitriona Wallace is playing chaperone to the wealthy and unworldly Alice Arroll and her hapless engineering apprentice brother Jamie. And Emile Nouguier, a partner of Gustave Eiffel, is looking to soar higher, in his designs or in hot air balloons, over a city filled with gossip, intrigue and seduction.


To Capture What We Cannot Keep manages to evoke the atmosphere of Paris in the 1880s, while keeping us at something of arm’s length, never letting us forget that Cait and the Arrolls are outsiders, uneasily navigating a society where morality is optional but reputation is paramount.

Colin gives us rich historical detail and the characters do feel like products of their time, helping the novel read like a story that could have unfolded. But lovers of plot and unexpected twists may be disappointed. The romance unfolds with few surprises and its pacing suffers at times. Cait is complex and Emile a worthy love interest for her, but the supporting cast plays stereotypical roles — devilish count, foolish virgin, plotting former mistress.

Beatrice Colin, 1963-
The novel also suffers from an overloading of sensual detail common to the genre, where historical heroines often read as more enamoured of scents, fabrics and their corresponding metaphors than their male counterparts. The exception to this is in her descriptions of the tower, where Colin does a good job of capturing its delicate precision balanced against its growing domination of the city’s skyline, its masculine assertion against the fear that it may sway, teeter and fall.

The novel takes patience and will appeal to Francophiles and romance readers perhaps more than to lovers of literature from the period. One of the best things about it is the title, which encapsulated my feelings upon finishing the novel. It’s a story of transition, of longing for something that we cannot hang onto, as the story, and the building of the tower, moves towards its inevitable conclusion.

Do you know of any more 21st-century novels set in the 19th century that you think the Secret Victorianist should read? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Secret Victorianist and Manga?

Since starting the Secret Victorianist four years ago I've seen shows, read books and attended events I might never have heard of was it not for this blog. That's how I ended up working as a Consultant on a translation of Kazuhiro Fujita's The Ghost and the Lady - a two-volume manga starring Florence Nightingale as one of its central characters.


Check out my interview with The OASG about the story and what I learned about this unfamiliar genre and the challenges of bringing two very different cultures together.

Are you working on a project you'd love the Secret Victorianist to be involved with? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Art Review: Monet: The Early Years, Legion of Honor, San Francisco

A couple of weeks ago the Secret Victorianist was in San Francisco, where I took the opportunity to see the first major US exhibition dedicated to Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) early years as an artist.

The Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide (1865)
Covering the period 1858 to 1872, the exhibition includes Monet’s early exhibits at the Salon, such as The Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide (exhibited in 1865), works rejected by the Salon, including innovative snowscape The Magpie (1868-9), and paintings that show his debt to other artists, like Luncheon on the Grass (1863), an homage to Edouard Manet’s 1863 painting of the same name.

The Magpie (1868-9)
What emerges is a picture of Monet as a rule-breaker — something hard for us to imagine given his prominent place in the art history canon today. The term Impressionism wasn’t coined until the 1870s, taking its name from Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872), and the exhibition does a good job of outlining why many of Monet’s experiments were rejected by the Parisian art world.

Luncheon on the Grass (1863)
But the exhibition also gives us a glimpse of Monet as a young man, struggling to survive with a young family. His 1878 The Red Kerchief, for instance, is a portrait of his first wife, Camille Doncieux, who died only a year later, Jean Monet Sleeping (1868) shows the artist’s oldest child at only a year old and Adolphe Monet Reading in the Garden (1866) captures a serene day in Monet’s often difficult relationship with his father.

The Red Kerchief (1878)
There are also paintings that conjure up different locations, which may be surprising to those who are most familiar with Monet’s Water Lilies series, painted at Giverny (where he first rented a house in May 1883). In 1871 he travelled to the Netherlands, painting landscapes and studies of the Dutch buildings, such as Houses on the Zaan River at Zaandam. This exhibition features many works from this trip as well as his journey to London, where he captured the bleak British weather in paintings such as Hyde Park (1871), using the same techniques we often associate with his skill in depicting brilliant sunlight.

Houses on the Zaan River at Zaandam (1871)
Monet: The Late Years is slated for 2019 and will no doubt contain even more of the artist’s most famous and loved paintings. But this exhibition, on display in San Francisco until May 29, brings you into the life and mind of a talented young artist, with the vision to create and encapsulate a movement.

Hyde Park (1871)
Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist would like? Let me know — here, on Google+, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Adolphe Monet Reading in the Garden (1866)

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Theatre Review: Vanity Fair, Pearl Theater Company, New York City

How do you take an eight hundred page 1840s novel and make it digestible in two and a half hours for the modern stage? According to playwright Kate Hamill and director Eric Tucker, through multi-roling, pointed exposition and random inclusions of dances like the Macarena and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The result is, ironically, the theatrical equivalent of a novel that needs a good edit, skipping from entertaining to irritating to downright perplexing in the course of a scene.



What the production gets right

Scene Selection:
Hamill shows an adept adaptor’s eye in her choice of scenes from Thackeray’s original. Those who had not read the novel were never in danger of losing the train of a complex plot and the emotional pacing allowed for more character development than you might have expected, given the role hopping of most of the cast. The moment Emmy (Joey Parsons) and Rawdon (Tom O’Keefe) share, discussing how much they miss their children, is a great example of the lightness of the script’s touch here, boiling down Thackeray’s lengthy prose into tight and relatable dialogue.

Becky Sharp:
Hamill herself takes on the role of the infamous Becky Sharp and outshines the rest of the cast, contorting her expressions to resemble those of Thackeray's illustrations and bringing out the character’s humanity as well as her manipulative nature.

Staging:
The cast-operated curtains and wheeling furniture makes for rapid scene transitions and is ideal for a play that covers multiple locations and years. The staging evokes the swirl and momentum of the fair – the literal fair Becky and co. attend early in the novel and the fair of society, everyone wanting something, everyone selling something, all clamouring to be heard.



What was less successful

Crossdressing:
The play’s actors took on many roles, playing not only cross-gender, but once cross-species with Parsons taking a brief turn as the Pitts’ cat. This worked for the most part but took a turn for the pantomimic in the male actors’ depiction of women. In this modern retelling with a clear feminist agenda, men playing women for cheap laughs felt out of place and awkward. Debargo Sanyal as Briggs, Brad Heberlee as Miss Jemima and Ryan Quinn as Miss Pinkerton were the main culprits. I couldn’t help but wish the cast had just played their roles with total commitment and realism.

Dancing:
The crossdressing fit a wider pattern of the cast being too reliant on, and almost desperate for, audience validation and laughter. At several junctures, as mentioned above, they broke out their twentieth and twenty first century dance moves, which added little to the production beyond a confused tittering from the crowd. It looked more fun for them than it was for us and bewildered the audience, rather than making Vanity Fair more accessible. Somebody should have told them to cut it out in rehearsal.

The ‘Moral’:
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair has no hero and no moral, facts which this product was keen to remind us of. But Hamill does introduce a moral of her own – that we should not be too quick to judge those who have gone before us, as one day others will look back and judge us. The idea is good, the delivery heavy handed and the point belaboured. It made me wish, as with many parts of the show, that the production team and cast would only trust us — trust the audience to ‘get’ it, to find humour without slapstick, to remain engaged without being spoonfed.

Do you know of any other NYC plays you think the Secret Victorianist should review next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.