This morning, just back from a week of storytelling in Washington, D.C., I joined three friends for a performance adaptation of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. We did not know quite what to expect. Elizabeth had seen a poster, been intrigued, and sought friends to join her. Some of her fellow PhD students at New College had shown ourselves to be a small, strong group of Austen fans, and from among that group, three wanted in.
Six puppets hung on their posts, back to the audience, as we entered. Music started, and Antonia Cristophers and Noel Byrne entered the stage, setting the scene, dance-like, pulling the rest of the props from the large brown trunk that itself became carriage, ballroom seats, thunder, bed, and cabinet of hidden letters.
From the moment I sat down, I was captivated, enthralled, delighted. Simplifying the story for this telling of it by leaving out the plot line involving Henry's brother was a good decision. Costuming and consistency of voices helped to identify the characters - the green ribbons for the Alans, blue for the Morlands, Red for the Thorpes, and purple for the Tilneys. The looming figure of Major Tilney was well rendered in flowing black, larger than the rest and almost ghost- or monster-like.
The puppets danced on the arms of Christophers and Byrne, and they played Catherine and Henry themselves. Both were immersed in their characters, in the story; and we saw what they imagined, what they saw, of the fields and gardens, crowded ball rooms, carriages, horses, and the Abbey's corridors.
Of course the story is greatly abridged for this 75 minute rendering of it for the stage. I did not feel they missed anything from a story I love.
It's hard to pick favourite moments, but I remember being delighted at Henry and Catherine's first meeting, and my smile as he used her capacity to imagine to show her his home by describing it to her. The effect of that big, dark, figure of Henry's father, the girlish kicks of Isabella, and the thoroughly dislikable John Thorpe. Catherine's brother and Henry's sister were both tender contrasts to the mischievous and playful John and Henry, and Catherine's naive imagination was played without rendering her entirely stupid or without sensibility.
The music punctuated, illustrated, carried, the story intrinsically; at times, it felt like a film.
The only decision I do not understand is why they had Henry turn his back to the audience for his declaration of love, his proposal of marriage. We talked about it over lunch, when the suggestion was made, perhaps it was so all we saw was Catherine's response. But she was hard to see for those behind Henry. Not sure.
But for the rest. The puppets were alive, all the characters were on stage, through the two bodies that brought them to life. And we, the audience, were in Bath, at the Abbey, and in the Alans' garden, for every single moment.
If you are in Edinburgh for the Fringe, go. If you are anywhere that Box Tale Soup are playing, go. They are consumate performers, they make all their props and costumes, which are gorgeous, and they will take you into an experience of a story that will delight you, move you, and make you ever so happy you were there.