Austen visits Durham

By Eleanor Dye, Second year English literature student. A review of CTC’s Northanger Abbey.

Saturday 9th and Sunday 10th February saw two performances of Jane Austen’s ​Northanger Abbey​ in Durham Castle, telling the story of Catherine Morland’s indulgence in gothic novels, her delusions because of it, and her eventual marriage with Henry Tilney. The audience were welcomed in at the entrance by characters already immersed in role, giving the impression that entering the Castle signalled a very welcome return to the world of Jane Austen.

Photo by Carla Brain, Original Image Here, Used under Creative Commons License.

Helena Baker successfully took on the challenge of playing Catherine Morland, portraying Austen’s heroine with the convincing youth and liveliness of a young woman entering society for the first time. She was splendidly matched by Ben Cartwright as Henry Tilney, who captured Tilney’s witty nature from the outset.

The standout performance, however, was given by Ryan Yao-Smith in his role of John Thorpe, a rival to Tilney for Catherine’s attentions. Yao-Smith was hilarious in his portrayal of a disgustingly gloating man, provoking many laughs from the audience. As a consistent presence in the first half of the play, he was irritatingly attentive to Catherine in a foil to the charm of Henry Tilney.

Directed by Imogen Usherwood, the interactive use of the castle as the location for the performances made for an engaging and immersive experience. The majority of the first half centred in the Great Hall and involved the audience moving from one side of the hall to the other as the narrative moved from the ballroom to the carriage and back. Whilst the audience were shifted around perhaps more than was necessary in the first half, the second half took place upstairs in the tapestry room, which provided a fitting gothic interior for the scenes that took place in the Abbey itself and the movement overall proved a creative decision.

The first half of the play was tightly structured and polished throughout. The director ensured the audience’s interest was sufficiently captured on stage without being overwhelming. One of Henry and Catherine’s initial conversations is a sublime example of this. It takes place during a well-mapped out dance, possibly inspired by similar scenes in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of ​Pride and Prejudice, and manages to put the focus on the couple without obscuring the surrounding social setting.

Highlights included the carriage scenes in which the actors managed to portray moving carts whilst not letting the dialogue suffer, producing an unexpectedly comic effect. The most notable scene for me was Catherine and Henry’s journey to Northanger Abbey​ at the start of the second half, in which Henry’s teasing of Catherine’s gothic fantasies was inventively portrayed. In what appeared to be a change of scene, Henry and Catherine left the cart while Henry told of the dangers of the Abbey. However, as the story ended they abruptly returned to their previous positions sitting in the cart, convincingly emphasising the extent of Catherine’s imagination and Henry’s fun in exploiting this.

Any potential criticism would have to focus on a slight loss of structural coherence in the second half of the play. Scene changes became slower in the Abbey scenes, with the audience left with a dark stage on more than one occasion and a few lines were forgotten now and again. The ending did appear rushed and slightly disjointed, with the relationship between Henry and Catherine hastily developing after leaving the Abbey. Overall, however, the play was engagingly performed with every actor managing to convey the subtle intricacies of Austen’s characters.

To find out more about Castle Theatre Company’s productions, visit their website or find them on Facebook.

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