Interview: 'It's Really Tongue-in-Cheek': Actor Rebecca Banatvala of NORTHANGER ABBEY on the Queer Adaptation of Austen's Work

'It would be nice if audiences take away a reflection on what it must have been like in that time to be queer and to be in love with someone'

By: Feb. 05, 2024
Interview: 'It's Really Tongue-in-Cheek': Actor Rebecca Banatvala of NORTHANGER ABBEY on the Queer Adaptation of Austen's Work

Zoe Cooper has returned to the Orange Tree Theatre with her newest work, Northanger Abbey, an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel of the same name that explores a queer relationship between Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe.

Recently, we had the chance to chat with Rebecca Banatvala, who plays Catherine in the production. We discussed what it is like taking on a queer interpretation of the classic Austen work, some highlights from rehearsals and performances and even her own favourite Gothic tale!


How did you first get involved in the world of theatre?

Well, I didn't really register that you could be in the world of theatre until university time. I was doing some student drama stuff and really enjoying it, thinking, “This is so much fun. I don't want to stop doing this!” And I remember I was at the Edinburgh Festival, we were at theSpace at Surgeons Hall, one of those really like makeshift stages. I was sat on the stage thinking, “Actually, this is the only thing I really want to do.” And so then I thought, “Okay, well, now I'll do it then!” But had no idea how to go about it, so I googled what to do. I left uni, I worked for a year and then applied to drama school and have been acting since!

And had you been a fan of Northanger Abbey before joining the show?

I didn't really know the book! Although, when I got the audition, I spoke to a friend of mine who really liked Jane Austen, and she was like, “Oh, yeah, it's great fun! It's a really good book.” And what I really like about it is that it's really tongue-in-cheek, a big old pastiche of Gothic literature, which you wouldn't expect, necessarily, from Jane. 

And so for those unfamiliar with the work, can you tell us a bit about your character and the role she plays in the story?

So I play Cath, and she sees herself as a heroine in training. She really falls in love with Gothic literature and romance, that supernatural thing and her worldview gets really affected by it. She's very naive. She's not really been out in society - she's just been around her siblings. We're actually in the north, near Yorkshire, in this adaptation, and she goes to Bath for the first time and it's super excited about it, but ends up getting into a lot of scrapes because of her own naivety and slightly warped worldview.

What made you want to be a part of this production?

Firstly, the great script! The characters are amazing, Cath is amazing! Also, the queer narrative that Zoe [Cooper] has worked in is really beautifully done and adds a real extra dimension to what the book is exploring. And the creatives across the board are great - Tess [Walker, Director] is fab, Jonnie [Riordan], the movement director’s also great, Zoe is a brilliant writer, the other actors as well - everyone on the project is just wonderful to work with. And the story itself is so busy and fun and camp!

Can you tell us a bit more about what it's been like taking the queer aspects and bringing that into the classic work?

So in the book itself, the friendship between Isabella and Catherine is the principle relationship in some senses - it's the one that is the most exciting and fleshed out. Her relationship with Henry, her suitor, is much less passionate, in a way! So Zoe has taken that and run with it.

Also, the way in which this book explores stories and how stories affect us, and which stories we tell, works really well with a queer narrative. And thinking about what it would have been like, in those days, for two women to fall in love. Because they had no economic stability on their own, there would be no way of actually having a life together. So that has also been quite a sobering thing within the play, how lucky we are to be in this particular country and in this particular time, and that people can love who they want to love and spend their lives with who they want to because that was not the case back then.

Did you do much research on the time period when preparing for the role?

I did, yeah! And also a bit into Gothic literature and what was really popular at the time like The Mysteries of Udolpho, the supernatural and things like that.

Did you have any favourites? 

Yes! The Castle of Otranto. There's this stone statue of a giant knight and his helmet falls onto this little boy who's about to get married and crushes him. And it was the weirdest start to a book I think I've ever ever heard! [Laughs] And then the dad goes all kinds of crazy and wants to marry his son's fiancee because he wants to escape this curse that he's going to lose the castle. But it's just the maddest thing you've ever read and just piled all of this weird stuff into a book - and people loved it!

Interview: 'It's Really Tongue-in-Cheek': Actor Rebecca Banatvala of NORTHANGER ABBEY on the Queer Adaptation of Austen's Work

What has it been like working with the Orange Tree Theatre for this production? 

They are such a lovely theatre to work with! They’re very kind, and they've got great biscuits! That’s always a plus.

Have you had any favourite moments from rehearsals so far?

We've laughed a lot because it's very funny and very silly. I think one of my favourite moments was when I couldn't find my script anywhere! [Laughs] I didn't know where it was. And AK, the other actor, had put it in the bucket! 

[Laughs]

So that just became the script bucket from then on. Yeah, we had a lot of fun. There was a moment when we were looking at the Northanger Abbey sequence. And we have this table, which is on stage. And we were having fun with me being on the table and the other two actors whizzing round and round, going faster and faster. That was also good fun!

And what have performances been like so far? 

Really good, actually! The audiences have really loved it, which has been really nice. And you can hear the people who know the story, because you can hear them being vocal at various points! It's just been a really warm, lovely experience. It's felt like we've been able to hold the audience on this journey with us and and we get some really great laughter as well. And one of the other actors has this great comic part of the strange sister inside Northanger Abbey - it's so hard to get through a scene of that because people are laughing so much! But it's good fun.

Interview: 'It's Really Tongue-in-Cheek': Actor Rebecca Banatvala of NORTHANGER ABBEY on the Queer Adaptation of Austen's Work

What do you hope audiences take away from Northanger Abbey?

Firstly, I hope they have a really great time. I hope that they really enjoy it and they laugh a lot. Also, it would be nice if audiences take away a reflection on what it must have been like in that time to be queer and to be in love with someone - there was no way that you could live your life with them - and how painful that must have been. And also, the stories underneath the stories.

We have this canon of literature, which has, for so many years, been very limited in terms of what it could explore in terms of gender, sexuality, ethnicity as well. And looking at the potential stories underneath the stories. What could have been going on? Where are the gaps? I think that would also be a lovely take-home.

And how would you describe the show in one word?

Fizzing!

Read our review of Northanger Abbey here.

Northanger Abbey runs until 24 February at the Orange Tree Theatre. 

Production Photo Credits: Pamela Raith




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