Arts / Jane Austen with a big ‘Sense’ of fun

Nathan O’Keefe in his “Sense and Sensibility” roles as, from left, Robert Ferrars, Lady Middleton and Edward Ferrars. Photos by Chris Herzfeld

JANE Austen haters can breathe a collective sigh of relief, says actor Nathan O’Keefe; American playwright Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Austen’s 1811 novel “Sense and Sensibility” cuts straight to the fun.

O’Keefe is part of the recently-formed State Theatre Company Ensemble heading from Adelaide soon to perform a cavalcade of roles.

“It’s a wonderful adaptation, grounded in characters that I can really get my claws into,” he says.

“Kate Hamill goes straight to the audience and puts a smile on their faces.”

She is, of course, aided and abetted by Austen, whose original is full of humour and dry social observation as she puts the boot into the wannabes and those already at the top.

Briefly, the story concerns the Dashwood family who are unexpectedly down on their uppers when their father dies without property, necessitating a move to a new community and a small cottage. And for a family with three daughters, there is no question, as Austen wrote elsewhere, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”.

O’Keefe gets to play two of those single men, the shy Edward Ferrars and his silly brother Robert, as well as Lady Middleton, the local dowager.

Gender-bending is just one of the many opportunities O’Keefe says that director Geordie Brookman opened up last year when forming the ensemble, a group of emerging actors and more experienced players who were guaranteed solid work on four theatre classics – “A Doll’s House”, “Macbeth”, “The Club” and “Sense And Sensibility”.

O’Keefe may be a veteran of Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies, Windmill, Griffin, Malthouse, Bell and the mainstage State Theatre Company of SA, but says he’s never had the chance to be in a real ensemble rather than jumping from role to role, so when joining up he thought: “Let’s do it, let’s build something special”.

As well as playing those three identifiable characters, he and other actors play the chorus-like “gossips” and a couple of servants.

“Also, we invite the audience to enter into the multiple characters and it’s quite a ‘wiggy’ show, we’ve all got our own wigs, Robert and Edward included,” he says.

The cast of “Sense and Sensibility”. Photo by James Hartley

“The key point of the show is always the heart and the two main female leads, Anna Steen as Elinor [Sense] and Miranda Daughtry as Marianne [Sensibility] go on an emotional rollercoaster – you can’t take that away.”

His primary character Edward is the romantic interest for Elinor, the older sister.

“We meet early in the play but we’re both very proper… we want to make sure the audience feels our deep-seated, emotional commitment,” he says.

“The small roles are always fun to play because you do that with a burst of energy and then you go off,” he says, and Austen’s over-the-top caricatures live in the same world as the fully fleshed-out human characters.

“Lady Middleton is a woman of few words but quite a presence and Robert shows the family that Edward comes from.

“But, I get most satisfaction playing Edward, living within the heart of the show, a beautiful love story.”

“Sense and Sensibility”, The Playhouse, May 29 (preview) to June 2. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.

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