Playwright Kate Hamill (Sense and Sensibility, The Wall Street Journal’s Playwright of the Year 2017) has described Vanity Fair as “a story about ambitious women.” We talked to her and Director Jessica Stone (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) about their upcoming collaboration at STC.
STC: How does ambition as shape the lives of the lead characters of Becky and Amelia? How does their world respond to their ambition?
Kate Hamill: These women are people who start out in very different situations in life; Amelia is born into a lot of privilege, she’s extremely beautiful, and she – as a result – feels that if she obeys the rules and is a “lady,” the world will treat her justly. Becky really crawls her way up from the gutter, does not have the same advantages that Amelia has – but she’s incredibly clever, and willing to break the rules to get ahead. Their fortunes go up and down throughout Vanity Fair, and the play is structured so we see Amelia and Becky, again and again, in parallel situations. Their ambitions are thwarted by patriarchal systems; they’re punished both for breaking and following the rules. And if (and when) they beat that system, it is only by virtue of their bond, of female friendship–of sisterhood.
Jessica Stone: I think ambition shapes the lives of most. People set their sights on something they desire and set about to obtain what they want. The same holds true for Becky and Amelia. What I’m intrigued by is that no one in Thackeray’s novel gets away with anything. Becky is without a moral compass; Amelia is fairly tone deaf with regard to Becky’s plight and downright selfish with regard to Dobbin. All of the men are ruthless with regard to their needs and desires and never stop to take in the consequences of their quests on others in their lives. The equanimity with which Thackeray treats such drive in both male and female characters feels 21st century.
STC: How has ambition shaped your life and the way others treat you?
KH: One of the things I’m known for is creating highly theatrical, radical, feminist adaptations of the classics; I’m very interested in reclaiming these texts so that they belong to everybody, and how they can speak to today. I love it, but it’s okay if it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But I have to say that I quite often get angry emails, from people who feel that I’m desecrating the classics. And I think that’s the price of having ambitions, as a woman; that you come under some fire – that you encounter some condescension and judgment. But thankfully, I have a bit of a mischievous, defiant streak, so that kind of feedback actually propels me onward! That – in my small way – I, and others like me, am paving a path, so that someday other women can reach for their aspirations without having a gendered response.
STC: What are your ideas for how your upcoming production with look and feel?
JS: This production is set in an old theater during the middle of the 19th century in London when burlesque and music hall were ushering in a time of bawdy, irreverent literary entertainment.
STC: How is this play relevant to audiences today?
KH: Vanity Fair is very much about how easy it is to judge others – despite all of our own flaws. This is a story about how we shouldn’t fancy ourselves as very different from our neighbors – because the truth is that we’re all flawed, we all have aspirations and disappointments, we all commit little sins. None of us are perfect, and we should strive to understand why people sometimes engage in destructive behaviors before we rush to judgment. That’s a hard lesson to learn, and it is evergreen.
Vanity Fair begins February 26.