Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 6 2020 01:00PM

Among the Janeite casualties of pandemic lockdown was the planned West End production of The Watsons, Laura Wade’s much-praised adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel. The show earned great reviews during runs at a provincial British theater in 2018 and a small London venue last fall, and its transfer to the British equivalent of Broadway had been set for May through September of this year.


Alas.


But! Now comes word that a serialized, professional, Zoom-enabled reading of the play will stream on Facebook Live over the next four Wednesdays – July 8, 15, 22, and 29, at 7 pm (Eastern). Each evening’s production will remain available online for four days afterwards.


The reading – produced by The Nora, a feminist initiative of the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA -- is free, but attendees must RSVP, and the signup includes a solicitation for donations. Proceeds will benefit the artists and The Welcome Project, an immigrants’ support organization based in a nearby community.


Wade’s version of The Watsons reportedly owes as much to Pirandello as to Austen, with the characters rebelling against the unfinished nature of their story and taking matters into their own hands. I was sad to miss it in England and hopeful it might arrive on these shores. This isn’t quite the American version I’d imagined, but it sounds well worth catching.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 7 2020 01:00PM

For those of us who love our Jane Austen adaptations, the coronavirus quarantine has been the best of times and the worst of times.


The new film of Emma migrated to streaming way ahead of schedule—but the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis canceled its world premiere of Kate Hamill’s stage adaptation, which had been scheduled to open last month.


The online performance of Paul Gordon’s musical version of Pride and Prejudice drew a robust international audience for its free premiere, and his earlier musical adaptation of Emma became available free to Amazon Prime subscribers (and to the rest of us twice last night and once more today at 2 pm, if you sign up). But the London run of Laura Wade’s much-praised theatrical version of The Watsons, a success at Chichester in 2018, was canceled.


You can stream Clueless on any number of platforms whenever you’d like, or just slot your old disc into your DVD player. But the twenty-fifth anniversary theatrical re-release, scheduled for this week, was postponed indefinitely.


It’s all entirely predictable, of course: If you can see it in the privacy of your own TV room, then it’s available. If you can see it only in company with a large group of potentially contagious fellow citizens, then it’s not. We know the drill. It’s just getting old.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 27 2019 01:00PM

The Janeite word of the moment, it would appear, is “fragment.”


* Last week, Jane Austen’s House Museum launched an urgent appeal for donations to fund the purchase of a recently rediscovered portion of an 1814 Austen letter.


* A few days later, the British broadcaster ITV released tantalizing on-set photos from its shoot of Sanditon, the upcoming eight-part television mini-series based on the novel Austen left incomplete upon her death in 1817.


* And yesterday it was announced that playwright Laura Wade’s much-praised theatrical version of The Watsons, an unfinished novel that Austen abandoned around 1805, will have a London premiere this fall.


Among these three fragments, the Austen letter is the least mysterious, since it comprises the lion’s share of a text that was published in full before its physical pieces were dispersed. By contrast, no one knows how Austen planned to finish The Watsons and Sanditon (although I’ve reviewed later efforts at completions here and here).


Given this built-in uncertainty, it’s no surprise that the current adapters felt free to take some liberties. Sanditon screenwriter Andrew Davies is apparently bringing us a rollicking melodrama that, judging from the photos, will feature the gorgeous production values and even more gorgeous actors we’ve come to expect from the company that brought us Downton Abbey. The British air date is sometime this fall; Masterpiece, which will air the show in the U.S., has not yet announced a schedule.


Wade’s theatrical version of The Watsons, which was produced last year at a theater festival in southeast England, takes a different tack, making post-modern hay out of the Pirandello-esque concept of literary characters left stranded in an unfinished work. Wade herself – or, at any rate, a writer named Laura -- shows up to debate matters with her heroine. The reviews were great, and if I had any chance of being in London between September 20 and November 16, I’d be first in line when tickets go on sale next week. Since that, alas, cannot be, I'll rely on blog readers to report back.



By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 15 2018 01:00PM

The Watsons -- the novel Jane Austen began, probably in 1804, but never finished -- is a fascinating fragment. It’s bleak and wintry, centering on a once-genteel family facing economic disaster and a heroine, Emma Watson, who struggles with feelings of displacement, loneliness and rejection.


Although The Watsons has inspired its fair share of fanfiction – I reviewed ten Watsons completions in a 2014 blog series – as far as I know, it’s never been adapted for the stage or screen.


So I was delighted to learn that this omission will be rectified later this year, when a Watsons dramatization by contemporary British playwright Laura Wade opens at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Chichester, Sussex, in southeastern England. (Those who enjoy playing Six Degrees of Jane Austen will note that the production will be directed by Samuel West, Wade’s life partner, who played Mr. Elliot in the excellent 1995 film of Persuasion.)


Judging from the description on the theater’s website, Wade’s version of The Watsons will have some postmodern fun with the notion of an unfinished manuscript. “Who will write Emma’s happy ending now?” the blurb asks. “This sparklingly witty play looks under the bonnet of Jane Austen and asks: what can characters do when their author abandons them?”


It all sounds most promising. Although Jane Austen apparently gave some of her relatives a general sense of what she planned for her Watsons characters, her outline leaves plenty of scope for fleshing out the story in unexpected ways. It should be fascinating to see whether Wade follows Austen’s roadmap or branches off on her own.


The play won’t open until November, but tickets are already on sale. My chances of being in Chichester this fall are nil, sadly, but If any lucky readers see the show, please post here and let us know what you thought.


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