The reimagining and retelling of a treasured work of literature can be a risky endeavour; New Zealand writer and performer Penny Ashton courageously took this plunge in her one-woman-show Promise and Promiscuity. Ashton describes this piece of theatre as collaboration between herself and Jane Austen, the 18th century writer who gifted the world with texts such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. Ashton engages with Austen’s timeless values and narratives to bring us the character of Elspeth, a young woman battling against the gender obligations and expectations of her time. Using wit, song and dance, Ashton stages a charming and utterly hilarious revision of Austen’s iconic works.
Ashton was a riot of energy on stage as she jumped so precisely between the portrayal of various entertaining characters who were all exaggerated depictions of classic Austen personalities. Ashton’s physicality, vocal talents and unwavering commitment made such characters overwhelmingly comical. Paired with sharp staging, all character distinctions easily identifiable.
Songs were scattered throughout the 70-minute production, adding an additional layer of amusement and ridiculousness to the piece. Ashton also interacted with her audience, introducing us to an eager participant, Mr Lock, who hand a grand time dancing across the stage with our performer. Ashton’s talents in improvisation were on display in these moments as the inclusion of the audience only added humour and appeared organic and comfortable.
The aptitude of Ashton’s writing shone in her inclusion of contemporary pop-culture references: although Austen’s work is timeless, Ashton made it relatable and relevant. This was not limited to Austen’s advocacy against gender conventions, although droll comments on the long-standing gender pay gap were slipped in. Ashton also provided references to Fifty Shades of Grey, Kim Kardashian, Kmart, Donald Trump, and Billy Joel, with this list is only scraping the surface. Intertwining 18th century life with our current day perspectives highlighted how little this world and humanity has really changed: we are as hilariously absurd now as we were then.
The themes in Pride and Prejudice will never get old; hence, Promise and Promiscuity is built on an intertextual solid foundation. Although this piece is rooted in Austen’s work, it must be noted that the enjoyment of this show is not exclusive to those who are well-read or obsessive fans of Austen’s literature. Promise and Promiscuity is widely accessible, cheeky and uninhibited, particularly in the way it draws from the current day zeitgeist. Ashton, her chummy friendship with Austen, and her delightful production provides all audience members with the opportunity to have a hearty chuckle.
4.5 / 5 stars
Words by Michelle Wakim
Promise and Promiscuity is playing at Gluttony’s Masonic Lodge until March 1
For more information and to purchase tickets, click here