We all pretty much consider the 1995 TV version of Pride and Prejudice to be the definitive version of the 1813 novel , not least for the Colin Firth ‘wet shirt’ visual treat whilst swimming at Pemberley. However it’s a completely different experience you have watching it in the theatre.
This particular adaptation relies on comedy timing and performance. Not so much on meaningful closes ups, character analysis or the visual splendour of a fancy Georgian environment; although set designer Max Jones employs a flexible revolving stage to switch between interior and exterior locations with a wrought iron effect to portray a sense of wealth and prosperity. Minimalistic but effective.
The characters were pleasingly portrayed: Matthew Kelly plays his Mr Bennet very dryly understated for the most part, which works well as Mrs Bennet is his over-the-top polar opposite – an excellent performance from Felicity Montagu. One forgets that although the character is portrayed as a ‘silly woman’ she is also, unlike Mr Bennet, able to see in practical terms how her family of five daughters can survive: and that is only within a ‘good’ (wealthy) marriage. This fact is underscored by the less silly character of Charlotte Lucas who, in accepting Mr Collins’ proposal, sacrifices personal feelings and wishes for one of solid, pragmatic security. So it is women’s lot in the Regency era in which the play is set. If we need to see true ‘silly’ in a female, this is embodied by the character of Lydia. Foolish, selfish and flighty, Mari Izzard’s effectively silly and babyish Lydia has scant regard or even complete ignorance to the potential damage she inflicts upon her family by flouting societal decorum.
Tafline Steen’s Elizabeth Bennet is not unlike Jennifer Ehle’s TV performance in its strength and wit but with more theatrical physical comedy than in the TV adaptation. Dona Croll’s Lady Catherine De Bourgh is just as grand and overbearing as you would expect. But it is Steven Meo as the greasily irritating Mr Collins who pretty much steals the show (indicated later when the players bow on stage, receiving a very loud cheer). Overblown? Yes. Almost pantomime in nature? Yes. But he can be completely forgiven: his over the top comedic toadiness was a delight to watch and very funny indeed.
Pride and Prejudice is a pleasing play in that all conflict is resolved despite the rigid world in which it is set. In Shakespearean terms it is very much a denouement of ‘all’s well that ends well’ as eventually Lizzie’s and Darcy’s feelings of prejudice and pride are resolved by dismissing initial false judgements and discovering each other’s true inner feelings and character. Lydia’s folly is smoothed over by Darcy’s decency and sense of personal responsibility. Likewise Jane and Bingly are reunited by him and it is the unorthodox (not necessarily socially-approved) route to marriage that saves the day and gives us our happy ever after. Decency and responsibility and (eventual) good judgement win the day. There are a LOT of words and proclamations and, frankly, ‘Austen speak’ – which are ably spoken by all the actors in a light, pleasing, yet unchallenging way that doesn’t delve too deeply into the characters or their situation.
Having said that, this theatrical adaptation by Simon Reade incorporates characters’ private thoughts into the action: for example we actually hear Mr Bennet ruefully proclaiming his own marriage to have been a mistake of poor judgment and confessing to Elizabeth that his wife’s “ignorance and folly greatly contribute to my amusement”. Despite such insights, unlike reading the novel, you do miss on the true, meaningful, historical context in which these characters live and breathe and how the expectations and limitations society imposes weigh heavily upon them. However in purely entertainment terms, director Simon Reade has done a great job translating the novel to the theatre: the production looks good and has good comic vigour and timing.
Cast: Daniel Abbott, Francesca Bailey, Anna Crichlow, Dona Croll, Benjamin Dilloway, Hollie Edwin, mari Izzard, Matthew Kelly, Steven Meo, Jordan Mifsud, Felicity Montagu, Charlotte palmer, Leigh Quinn, Mark Rawlings, Kirsty Rider, Tafline Steen Director: Deborah Bruce Writer: Simon Reade Theatre: The Churchill, Bromley Duration: 150 mins Dates: 21st-24th September 2016