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Sense and Sensibility, high energy and emotion

Heather Wallace

There’s one guest who gets invited to all my fantasy dinner parties: Jane Austen.

Smart, satirical and witty, there’s always room for her at my table.

Yet I’d hesitate to tell her that while I can quote Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion, I’m not as familiar with her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. I appreciate it for setting the title pattern of paired nouns but I’ve always found the characters a bit…difficult.

The story centres on two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, forced to leave their childhood home when their elder half-brother turns them out at the instigation of his mean-spirited wife Fanny. Reserved Elinor falls in love with Fanny’s brother, Edward (who has a secret), while the excitable Marianne tumbles head over heels in love with the charming Willoughby, overlooking her kindly but mature suitor Captain Brandon.

Since Sense and Sensibility isn’t my favourite Austen story, I was a bit nervous when I was asked to interview Miranda Daughtry, who plays Marianne in a new production by The State Theatre Company Ensemble.

I had nothing to worry about, Miranda was as charming and sparkling as I imagine Austen herself to be. She describes how this isn’t the usual bonnet and breeches production we’re used to with Austen’s work; which the audience picks up immediately when a character roller skates across the stage. This is a far cry from what Miranda describes as “ye olde period pieces” of which she is a diehard fan.

“Bonnets are still key,” Miranda assures me, “There’s a chorus of Gossips who comment on the action, and you know them by the very exaggerated floral bonnets they wear. Our actors double up on roles, so the bonnets, even on our male actors, indicate they’re a different character.”

Despite the playful nature of the staging, Miranda says it is still grounded in the relationship between the sisters. “The story really requires the heart to be there, you have to care about the sisters and be part of what they’re experiencing. There is a sense of danger about what can happen, to women particularly, when a reputation is affected by gossip. Once the Dashwoods lose their social standing they’re seen as ‘wasted goods’, through no fault of their own.”

Even though society is censorious, Miranda has a much more generous take on some of the characters. It’s easy to see sister-in-law Fanny, who starts the sisters’ troubles, as the villain, but Miranda has a different interpretation. “Fanny is just looking out for her own in a society that is ready to tear anyone down. Lizzy Falkland plays her so well and audiences end of hanging off her every word, she is so sharp.

“There’s a male character who is much more villainous, he is only out for himself and his own wants, and he doesn’t consider consequences.”

The cast itself has been performing as an ensemble for several seasons in Adelaide and the touring production of Sense and Sensibility will be their final run together. Miranda joined the company straight out of NIDA in 2015 and found herself embraced by this close-knit group. “It has meant so much to me starting out this way, finding my voice as a young actor amongst this talented group. We’ve been performing a suite of plays with female protagonists at the centre.

“It’s a dream to run around in these frocks, not that they’re very mobile,” she laughs out loud. “Austen is whip smart, and a lot of the dialogue is taken directly from the book. Even though around the edges the production is loose, what with the roller skates, but at its heart it is still Austen’s work.”

Well now I know what Jane Austen and I will be talking about at my next dinner party.

The essentials
What: Sense and Sensibility by The State Theatre Company Ensemble
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 29 May to 2 June
How much: $65-$85
Book: canberratheatrecentre.com.au

Images by Chris Herzfeld

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Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author