THE title character in Jane Austen’s novel Emma is a 20-year-old woman in a rural community who tries to arrange marriages for those around her while keeping herself unwed.
Emma’s attempts at matchmaking amusingly show her lack of awareness of the circumstances that bring people together in a romance.
Novocastrian Pamela Whalan, an internationally renowned member of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, has adapted Emma into a play that will have its premiere season at Hamilton’s DAPA Theatre from May 13, with Whalan as director.
The play has a top flight cast, headed by Alison Cox as Emma, Brian Wark as Mr Woodhouse, the widowed father she cares for, and Michael Byrne as Mr Knightley, a respected landowner neighbour who is the only person prepared to criticise Emma for her foibles.
While Emma was published in 1816, its characters are people audiences will recognise 200 years on.
The young village vicar, Mr Elton (Craig Lindeman), comes wooing Emma, for example, but she tries to point him in the direction of pretty 17-year-old Harriet Smith (Stephanie McDonald), a girl of uncertain parentage who lives at the local boarding school. And another young woman, Jane Fairfax (Sonja Davis), is determined to marry, to save herself from having to take employment as a governess.
The other cast members include David Gubbay, Judith Schofield, Fiona Mundie, Alastair Anderberg and Renee Thomas.
Emma is the fifth Jane Austen novel to have been transformed into a play by Pamela Whalan.
She adapted the first, Mansfield Park, while working in Sydney because she couldn’t find a stage version that retained the spirit of Austen’s writing.
The success of that led Sydney’s Genesian Theatre to commission her to adapt Sense and Sensibility, and since returning to Newcastle she has adapted and staged Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice and Emma, with Austen’s last major work, Northanger Abbey, on her to-do list.
The plays have been staged worldwide, with Pamela Whalan invited to the American premiere of Sense and Sensibility in Boston.
Alison Cox sees Emma as spoilt, provincial and sheltered.
“But her faults and failings make her more human,” she said.
“She becomes a matchmaker with the best of intentions. But she invariably gets everything wrong.”
Brian Wark notes that Mr Woodhouse is a hypochondriac who has spoilt Emma and dotes on her because she looks after him when he is walking.
As Michael Byrne says, his landed gentleman is always telling Emma what to do and say, but in such a clumsy way that she takes no notice of him, treating him like an irritating brother. Eventually, he comes to see her in a different light.