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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Text and subtext

These days, some thirty years after the literary critic Edward Said first offered a post-colonial reading of Mansfield Park, the idea that the novel is about slavery, or has a slavery subtext, or engages—either subversively or not so much--with the question of British slaveholding in the West Indies is a commonplace in academia. Whether that idea has trickled down to the average Austen reader is another question.

So it will be interesting to hear the reactions to a provocative-sounding new UK theatrical version, which features an all-Black cast and foregrounds the slavery subtext. Adapted and directed by Tonderai Munyevu and Arne Pohlmeier, the show is wrapping up a tour of rural venues—including Jane Austen’s House in Chawton--this week; it will be presented outdoors at the Watermill Theatre in the southern English town of Newbury from June 28 through July 8.

The team behind the production aims to reinvent the classics for modern, not-necessarily-white audiences, so it’s no surprise that this Mansfield Park adaptation seems to take some liberties with the original: Promotional materials describe Fanny Price as “a clever, witty young woman” who is “led . . . astray” as the Crawfords “introduce her to a world of reckless flirtation, unrequited love, and decadence.” In this version, Sir Thomas’ departure for Antigua forces Fanny “to confront the source of her family’s wealth and its true cost.” (Viewers of Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film may find some of this a tad familiar.)

Although Said argued for a fundamentally conservative Austen—to him, the novel embodies the cultural habits of mind that enabled later English imperialism—more recent critics and adapters tend to insist that Austen was One of Us Contemporary Progressives when it comes to these racial and political questions.

“Jane Austen was keenly aware of injustice and inequality and there is a quiet but determined activism at the core of her work,” Pohlmeier says in a press release. “It is our mission with this project to remind our audiences of this overlooked aspect of her brilliance.”

Agree or disagree, it certainly sounds interesting! If you see the show—tickets cost £20 (about $25) and can be booked here--please leave your review in the comments.

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