‘Pride & Prejudice’ regularly tops lists of the most loved novels. Austen’s novel lends its text to numerous adaptations, of all kinds, including those with zombies, set in Bollywood, and a wet Colin Firth. As with Shakespeare, it is a truth universally acknowledged that sentences from it can be quoted by those who have never read a page.
So what do Simon Reade (stage adaptation) and Deborah Bruce (director) have to offer in their production? First performed at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2013 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, and revived in 2016 and 2017, the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death, the play starts its tour at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury with enormous style.
The set design (Max Jones) is marvellous, a wrought iron spiral staircase rotating around as the locations move between Netherfield, Longbourn and Pemberley, all in front of a screen of trees that slowly changes as the seasons do. It adds enough variation to the scenery without causing too much disruption to performance.
I’m shocked by how young the cast of daughters are to be getting married, but then remember that this is reflective of the period. But even today, the accomplishments of Hollie Edwin (making her professional debut as Jane), Kirsty Rider (also making her professional debut in the role of Caroline Bingley) and Tafline Steen (Elizabeth) are quite astounding.
A certain vulnerability to Darcy (Benjamin Dilloway), underneath his sniffiness, makes Elizabeth’s love for him more believable than in other adaptations. The gasp of admiration and amazement from local school children as the two kiss at the end reminded everyone in the audience of why they love it. The warmth of the relationship between Elizabeth and her father (Matthew Kelly) is also lovely to watch, a tender portrayal of the sensible but witty patriarch crucial to the story’s development.
Whilst we might laugh at Mrs Bennet’s (played sparklingly by Felicity Montague) steadfast obsession and desperation to see her daughters wed, we have to acknowledge that not only was marriage in Austen’s day crucial for economic and social standing, but that sadly some things don’t change. As much as we have made steps towards equality, and it’s no longer the case that unmarried women will be destitute, there is still enormous pressure to settle down and have babies by the age of thirty, and the word ‘spinster’ being not an adjective but a criticism.
As always, purists will tut at the condensing of certain passages, or lines being moved between characters, but when adapting a novel of over 120,000 words into not more than 120 minutes, a level of selectivity will be required. Reade does it well. Carefully selected text means that Austen’s wit and humour shines, eagerly delivered by the cast and with particularly over the top vivacity from Montague.
It’s difficult to bring any new angle to ‘Pride & Prejudice’, but that’s not what people want from Austen’s most loved novel. Sometimes warmth, wit and wonder are all that is needed of art, and in this production, all three are delivered in volumes.
The ‘Pride and Prejudice 2017’ plays at the Marlowe Theatre until Saturday 4 February.
Featured (top) image: Benjamin Dilloway as Darcy and Tafline Steen as Elizabeth Bennet. Photo by Johan Persson.