Austen for a Modern Audience

Kimberly Colburn
 | Aug 27, 2018
Sense and Sensibility logo
Jessica Swale

​​Playwright Jessica Swale.

Written around 1795, when Jane Austen was only 19, Sense and Sensibility was originally a series of letters, titled Elinor and Marianne, and was later converted to the prose we know as the novel. Published in 1811, it sold out its first and second print runs within a year and remains in publication to this day. There are ​numerous screen versions of Austen’s novels—including the acclaimed 1995 Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet—and numerous stage adaptations as well.

The story, for those unfamiliar, focuses on the Dashwood women. Upon the sudden death of Mr. Dashwood, his first son (the sisters’ half-brother) inherits the estate and fortune…leaving Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters—sensible Elinor, headstrong Marianne, and youngest sister Margaret—to fend for themselves. Elinor and Marianne are suddenly pressured to make good marriages soon or their entire family’s future is in danger. They both meet and court various men and their emotions are put through the wringer before the story concludes in the way so many romantic comedies do.

SCR’s production of Sense and Sensibility is adapted by Jessica Swale, a British playwright and director who is also adept in film. This background results in an adaptation that is fluid, fun and, above all, theatrical. She explains: “It has all the elements required for a theatrical drama; brightly painted characters, a gripping narrative, it’s emotional, it’s funny and it unfolds at pace. Often novels don’t translate well to the stage as the scope of their world is far too large; to try and reduce them to a couple of hours can be detrimental. Sense and Sensibility, however, is like a bright little gem; in essence it is the story of two sisters and their first encounters with love and society.”

Of the challenge, Swale shared that she “felt a weight of responsibility in taking on such a beloved novel, but when I began the task it seemed easier to unravel the book than I’d expected.” She gave herself permission to think in terms of the needs of the stage: “I allowed myself to imagine encounters and invent scenes—and was surprised by the degree to which this was necessary.”

The changes are subtle; it’s often a matter of showing through action what can be told in letters in the book. For example, in the novel the youngest sister, Margaret, is somewhat inconsequential, but Swale expands her role and uses the sisters’ suitors’ relationship to Margaret as part of the courting process. Margaret is also a key link to connecting with modern audiences, as her non-traditional viewpoint on wanting to become a Naturalist reflects the questions that were beginning to be raised in society about the role of women. Swale comments that “Sense and Sensibility is set at a fascinating point in history, the turn of the 19th century, a time when women began to question their situation," Swaley Says. "Elinor and Marianne are curious about the world. Elinor believes Edward is lucky because, though he might not be able to choose any profession, at least he has the possibility of work, and what a wonderful thing that must be. At the time middle class women hadn’t the opportunity to work, but it isn’t long before the wheels of change begin turning and women begin to ask for more opportunities.”

Director Casey Stangl is embracing the many connections of the story to our modern world, and leaning in to the theatricality of the adaptation. She’s put together a cast that reflects the world today in order to highlight the universality of the piece (read more about the cast). Set designer François-Pierre Couture has created an elegant space that eschews heavy detailing of the period but instead supports lightning-fast scene transitions. The period look is grounded in the costume design by Maggie Morgan, and empire waist dresses and rich fabrics abound, exhibited in full glory with choreography by Kitty McNamee. Lights by Anne McMills and video projection design by David Murakami help shape and define the deceptively simple stage, and sound designer Martín Carrillo creates a lush soundscape.

Austen’s stories take place in a world governed by strict societal customs. Her characters are archetypal, but drawn with nuance and compassion, and although our modern customs around courtship and propriety might be different, we are equally under the weight of outside pressures. This production is intended to resonate for a contemporary audience, matching Swale’s intention in her adaptation. When discussing why Sense and Sensibility still connects to people today, she says: “For women now, often choosing between work life and family life, the question is as relevant as ever. We all now have more choices, but does that make things easier? Perhaps not; it certainly makes things more complicated.”

With all our present complications, entering the world of Sense and Sensibility provides a much​-needed escape with compelling characters and presentation of problems that we know will end happily one way or another. However, it’s not just a Regency era fantasy tale. It’s also a production that provides historical distance to examine the antecedents to our current society. Family dynamics, gender politics, and finding loving partners are all still issues that people are dealing with, and examining another time and culture allows for surprising revelations and significance…in a charming and delightful package.

Learn more about Sense and Sensibility and buy tickets.