In one sense Jane Austen’s writing is a stage adaptor’s dream, with its dialogue so fluent and fully formed. In another sense it is a dauntingly rich challenge, given the characters’ underlying thoughts and feelings which her prose conveys, turning the reader to a trusted confidant. It is this interplay between the heard and the unheard, the public utterances and the private anxieties, which make her books such vivid emotional dramas of head and heart.
Pride and Prejudice may not be the best of her novels, but there are none in which her staple theme of true love’s pursuit in a world made false by the quest for status is more exhaustively aired. One of the keys to this reading by Regent’s Park Theatre, just embarked on a five-month tour, can be seen in designer Max Jones’s ingenious set. This rotates us through the glorious landscapes of Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley estate, of Netherfield Park, where the supremely eligible young Charles Bingley is renting the manor, into the fraught interior of the Bennet family’s life, with its five husband-hungry daughters.
The production has itself come from London’s best-landscaped theatre, the Regent’s Park Open Air, and now moves indoors for an autumn of essential English sojourns, from Cambridge to Canterbury. The apparent serenity of the environment – no less planned than the marriages – is shot through with the terrors of singleness, its resulting penury and social dismissal. The stakes are high and the tactics are low, none more so than those embodied by hypersnob Lady Catherine de Bourgh, aunt of the handsome but chilly Mr. Darcy.
As in the book, so in Simon Reade’s true-hearted adaptation, the evolution of these two characters is at the heart of the action; Darcy because he has the courage, and indeed the sense, to change in order to become a viable husband for Elizabeth Bennet. Viable, that is, in an emotional sense; the money has never been a problem. Lady C’s evolution is of the inverted kind. There is none. If anything there is a reversion to an even more entrenched attachment to the tyrannical gods of land, standing, and prospects.
Both of these performances, which at their most extreme enter the realm of lampoon, demonstrate director Deborah Bruce’s commitment to the high seriousness which never deserts Austen’s comedic instincts. So too does Stephen Meo’s William Collins. As Austen seems to do in her initial portrayal of him, Meo has him as a ludicrous clerical cartoon, but one whose presence takes on a sinister aspect. He after all is Mr. Bennet’s cousin and though he is a distant one he is nonetheless heir to Bennet’s estate by virtue of the legal “entailment” as a result of there being no male claimants. As the girls’ father, Matthew Kelly portrays the age-old haplessness of the lone and outgunned male. His interplay with Felicity Montagu’s Mrs. Bennet is like a series of visits from Restoration Comedy.
As with many successful adaptations of Austen’s work, there is an edgy kind of elegance to Bruce’s production. Edgy because the venality of the matchmakers’ motives becomes ever more embarrassingly clear as their plots hatch and founder; elegant because the poise of Austen’s sentences keeps alive the hope that there is an order to be had in the lives of her deserving subjects, and that she can be trusted to bestow it upon them.
Strange to see such a racial mixture against this eighteenth century backdrop, and interesting to speculate on what Austen would have made of the principle of colour-blind casting. This production reminds you what a radical creature she was; how feminist before the word; how fully she became wedded not to a man but to her art and left a body of work that enriches countless inheritors. She would very possibly have approved of this blow struck against marginalisation.
Review by Alan Franks
Following sell-out performances in 2013, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s acclaimed production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, adapted for the stage by Simon Reade, returns this year to close the 2016 Summer Season ahead of a major UK Tour in September. Opening at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, the tour will then visit Norwich, Cambridge, Salford, Leicester, Woking, Truro, Birmingham and Richmond, with further dates in 2017. There will be a press night at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley on Thursday 22 September at 7.30pm.
One of the most universally loved and quintessentially English novels of all time, Pride and Prejudice tells the story of the Bennet family and their five unmarried daughters. A family of humble means, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet see the perfect opportunity to improve their social standing when the wealthy Mr. Bingley and his eligible friend Mr. Darcy move to the neighbourhood. But while Bingley takes an immediate liking to their eldest daughter Jane, the dismissive Darcy instantly clashes with the Bennet’s headstrong second daughter, Elizabeth. As the Bennet sisters haplessly search for love in Jane Austen’s ultimate romantic comedy, it is Mr Darcy who unwittingly finds his match.
Selected Tour Dates
Book Tickets for New Victoria Theatre Woking
25th to 29th October 2016
Book Tickets for Richmond Theatre
15th to 19th November 2016