by Tory Crabtree
From text message etiquette to the horror online date with halitosis, finding love in the 21st century is no picnic. Refusing to settle for any man except a modern version of Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy makes it even harder.
Jane Austen is Dead is a play written and performed by New Zealand actor Mel Dodge. The play developed when Ms Dodge, 31, returned to her home in New Zealand after studying acting in London. A lifelong fan of Jane Austen, she took her own experiences and those of the women around her and wove them into the tale of Sophie, and her knight-in-shining-amour who never showed up because he didn’t exist.
“I had had a break up and I was thinking a lot about love, and my expectations of love, and where they had come from,” Mel Dodge said. “I wanted to say in the play that our expectations get in the way of our happiness.”
On stage, she introduces the audience to a tribe of engaging and relatable characters to illustrate her point. Sophie, the lead character, is 34, single, and works in a pub she has inherited from her father. She is mulling over her loves and losses with wry humor. A veteran catcher-of-bouquets at weddings, Sophie is painfully aware that it is the eve of her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, a man she thought she’d marry, right up until the moment he popped the question.
There is Mary, a neurotic barmaid, who anxiously awaits a text message from a man she’s dated the night before. After going out just once she’s decided which parts of him she needs to change, is planning their wedding and imagining their children. And while agonising over whether she should be the first to text, or keep waiting by the phone.
Then there is the jaded, cynical and crass Teresa who searches for love each Friday night at drinks after work. She refuses to fake orgasms on principle and harshly critiques the men she sleeps with who are never able to reach her exacting standards.
And, we meet the drunk and pregnant Helen, who is betrothed to Sophie’s ex. Helen, smug about her upcoming wedding, bitchily explains the seven steps of desperation that a single person must go through. Once the final step, acceptance, is reached, she tells Sophie, a wonderful man will appear in her life, and they will live happily ever after.
Finally, Sophie tells us the story of her epiphany. After a horror date with a teetotal taxidermist, who has a scaly skin condition, a gambling problem, bad breath, and lives with his mother and who, just for a moment, she considers sleeping with, she realises this, “Jane Austen has let me down. How can any man possibly live up to Mr Darcy? I suddenly realised no real man is going to say ‘you pierce my soul’ or ‘allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you’.
“So I look up my Jane Austen biography and it finally clicked; she never got married. It’s fiction. The woman who created the perfect man never actually found him. Mr Darcy does not exist.”
Over 45 minutes of comedy and storytelling, Mel Dodge shows her audience that unrealistic expectations have a habit of not only getting in the way of relationships, but also in life.
Jane Austen is Dead was presented at the New Theatre in Newtown as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.