Theatre review: By Jane’s Hand, La Mama

Austen fans will get on board, but greater directorial distance may have improved this project.

The appeal of Jane Austen’s vivacity and intelligence endures. Both of her time and beyond it, Austen simultaneously embodied and subverted the feminine constructs that bound her. I have little doubt that she would have been exceptionally entertaining at a dinner party and, like countless others, I enjoy her novels. Austen was funny, witty, more than a little bitchy and created some of the most memorable characters of the Regency period. It is little wonder then that artists, researchers and writers want to get inside her head and “reimagine her creative process”. Seldom Theatre’s Production of By Jane’s Hand is an attempt to do just this. 

Curated by mother/daughter team, Dr Emma O’Brien and Olivia O’Brien, By Jane’s Hand is an assemblage of Austen’s texts, including excerpts from letters to her sister, Cassandra, and from Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. Textual snippets are interspersed with a collection of Austen’s favourite music, from classical tunes to bawdy alehouse songs, beautifully performed by the versatile cast, Isha Menon, Marjorie Butcher and Olivia O’Brien. 

Each takes turn to play Austen, as well as characters from Pride and Prejudice (Mr and Mrs Bennet, Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy, Mr Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh). Vocally and physically, the performers overlap, intertwine, interject, duplicate and triplicate their source material, moving seamlessly between correspondence, characters and songs. In this sense, the audience is invited to experience the different aspects of Austen’s bountiful creative mind through an immersive, real-time experience.

It’s an interesting idea that, as a performance, doesn’t quite come off. Under O’Brien’s direction, the piece has a rambling quality, with the three performers pacing the small stage of the Courthouse Theatre like caged tigers within a set design that feels unnecessarily cluttered. Perhaps the metaphor of tigers in a cage is O’Brien’s intention – after all, Austen’s wildly imaginative world was born of her confined domestic chamber and, from a feminist perspective, the image of the trapped woman makes sense – but a synthesis of the many elements of this dramatic work is not quite achieved, leaving it adrift in a surfeit of content.

But it isn’t just the under-resolved theatrical presentation of By Jane’s Hand that disappoints. Without reference to contemporary feminist concerns, beyond the obvious fact that the patriarchy still dominates, passion projects like By Jane’s Hand run the risk of untethered eccentricity and an audience may be left asking, “why?” Those who love Jane Austen will likely get on board, but consideration of what Austen’s creative spirit may mean today – socially, politically, physically, musically, aesthetically – would perhaps be a more interesting exploration.

Read: Theatre review: As You Like It, Queensland Theatre

To be fair, By Jane’s Hand is not an attempt to copy some BBC period piece and, while all the performers are strong, Menon, in particular, has a refreshingly contemporary sensibility, but the producers would do well to engage an outside director for By Jane’s Hand, who would stand at a greater aesthetic distance from the material.

By Jane’s Hand
A Seldom Theatre Production
La Mama Courthouse
Text by Jane Austen
Songs and music by various composers chosen by Jane Austen, arranged by Dr Emma O’Brien
Conceived and curated by Dr Emma O’Brien and Olivia O’Brien
Director: Dr Emma O’Brien OAM
Dramaturgy: Draf Draffin and Henry O’Brien
Cast: Isha Menon, Marjorie Butcher, Olivia O’Brien
Lighting Designer: Hannah Willoughby
Costumes: Susan Halls
Set Designers: Dr Emma O’Brien and Henry O’Brien
Set Construction: Martin Mason and Rod Connolly
Tickets $8-$30

By Jane’s Hand will be performed until 7 May 2023.

Jennifer Barry is a Melbourne-based theatre producer and arts manager with over 30 years’ experience in the Australian and US arts industries. She has a BA in Communications (Theatre/Media), a Masters in Theatre Studies, and a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.