If UGA Theatre’s upcoming production of “Vanity Fair” brings anything to the table, it’s an open discussion of feminism, class dynamics and wealth disparity.
“It’s incredibly modern, really dynamic, creative theatrically and just a wonderful ensemble piece,” said director David Saltz, the department head of the University of Georgia’s Department of Theater and Film Studies. “It really combines the best of the new and the old and I really love that.”
Originally an 1848 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, “Vanity Fair” was given new life by playwright Kate Hamill in 2017. Taking place in 19th century England, the story centers around an ambitious woman named Becky without a penny to her name and her friend born into privilege. In a society that overlooks both women, they must do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals.
“She knows society and the rules are stacked against her so she’s not going to play by those rules,” Saltz said of Becky’s character. “She’s really brilliant, manipulative and charming.”
Atalanta Siegel, a second year MFA student in acting, will portray Becky. Siegel said the play is able to provide modern commentary on how people view characters like Becky.
In contrast to Becky, her privileged counterpart Amelia does not challenge societal norms because she was born on top of the social ladder. Nevertheless, Amelia grows through challenging herself instead of others.
Portraying Amelia is Emily Willett, a freshman mechanical engineering and dance major. Willett explained how Amelia is in a constant battle to embody goodness throughout the play.
“Where Becky survives by outwardly transforming into whatever the world needs her to be, Amelia always strives for what’s best and refuses to let the world change her heart,” Willett said.
While feminist themes are evident in the story, the primary goal of Thackeray’s novel was to expose the hypocrisy of the British class system in a “satirically wonderful way,” Saltz said.
“I think the message remains relevant because there is hypocrisy in society and people who will talk about the need to be good but only insofar as it enriches them,” Saltz said. “The story is cutting through that and seeing the human cost.”
A character who serves as an example of the absurdity of the class system is Mrs. Crawley, one of the wealthier characters in the play who befriends Becky. Playing Mrs. Crawley is Shanon Weaver, a second year MFA acting student.
“Mrs. Crawley would like to think of herself as knowledgeable of bohemian lifestyles, but at the same time revels in her own station,” Weaver said. “She looks at Becky as a pet or plaything, but would never have her as an actual member of her family.”
Weaver describes the play as being less accusatory and more informing, with the goal of fueling lively discussions among attendees. The show examines the true cost of “rags-to-riches,” Weaver said.
Seigel said the show is structured as “characters versus society,” not male versus female or rich versus poor. The message of empowerment uplifts while acknowledging historic gender- and class-specific consequences, she said.
The play will take place in the Cellar Theatre on Feb. 20-22 at 8 p.m., Feb. 25-29 at 8 p.m., and March 1. at 2:30 p.m. Tickets start at $12.