Sometimes I worry that I am becoming a snob. This concerns me, especially when I come to review for BSECS. Our Criticks website is at its best when drawing on our specialist, eighteenth-century knowledge in order to offer insight and evaluation available nowhere else. Yet, at the same time, I must confess that such knowledge can, in my case at least, lead to intellectual snobbery. There are few productions where this problem is more acute than when I am asked to review a Jane Austen adaptation. When I was myself a reviews subeditor, I came to resent these adaptations: they represented a huge proportion of the long eighteenth century’s presence on our stages, and (as well as keeping less well-known plays off) even cast their shadow over other plays of the period, Austenising Goldsmith and Sheridan, for example.
It was with mixed feelings, therefore, that I took up my seat in Newcastle’s Theatre Royal. I tried to put my own prejudices to the back of my head, and to forget my own colleagues’ decidedly ambiguous responses to the news that I would spend my evening reviewing an Austen adaptation. Instead, I concentrated on the setting: the theatre (whose charter was granted by George III) was packed, and its interior (which dates to the 1890s) resplendent in gold leaf and plaster ornamentation. A new black floor, complete with massive turntable, had been laid over the stage with minimal disruption to the building. From this surface rose an elegant semi-circular construction in metal with two levels, which served variously as the walls of country houses, stairwells and more, depending on the rotation of the stage itself. Off to one side, a gorgeous pianoforte was visible. As the lights went down and the stage began a slow rotation, Kitty Bennett played a waltz and the other cast members danced on.
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. How else can one begin an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice? The book’s first line is its most famous, and occupies – like ‘To be or not to be’ – a prominent place in popular culture, known even to those who have not read much Austen. Unlike Hamlet’s soliloquy, however, ‘It is a truth…’, in its passage from the page to a stage without narrator, must be given to a character. In this production, it is given to Mrs Bennet. In fact, it is given to Mrs Bennet twice: the line bookends the adaptation, stamping it with what I (snobbishly) can only call the Austen brand, to the extent that numerous members of the audience were able to sing along with Mrs Bennet, mouthing the sentence as she concluded the play.
I sometimes, in my highbrow way, do this in a Shakespeare production, whispering my favourite lines along with the actors and experiencing, for a moment, the thrill of the passage in performance. When I do this, and when the audience did it with ‘It is a truth…’, it tends, however, to reshape the kind of attention one pays to the play: one validates the Austen (or Shakespeare) brand, confirms one’s own cultural capital, and, satisfied with it all, studies the particular performance with an eye less critical. One should not forget that having Mrs Bennet twice proclaim ‘It is a truth…’ was a deliberate choice, and one that is symptomatic of this production as a whole. As played by Felicity Montagu, the overbearing matriarch is relentlessly comic, rushing to and fro on the stage, wilting onto a sofa, attempting to climb up the set and blasting out her lines with a marvellous disregard for her interlocutors. To have such a character bookend the production is thus a sign that this adaptation will pursue light-hearted comedy and neglect other aspects of Austen’s work.
There is, for example, little satire here. We get none of Jane’s chagrin at Bingley’s apparent rejection, and precious little of the terrible, pragmatic calculus that leads Charlotte Lucas to marry Reverend Collins. Instead, Hollie Edwin’s Jane and Francesca Bailey’s Charlotte either accept their lot smilingly or recover remarkably quickly from their vicissitudes. Steven Meo’s Reverend Collins does, at least, an excellent job of meriting our derision, but he does so as a bumbling fool, who talks too loud and is roughly pushed away when he tries to interrupt Wickham’s tête-a-tête with Lizzie Bennet.
And what of Lizzie and Darcy? If the price of placing Pride and Prejudice under the sign of Mrs Bennet is a lack of satiric salt, there is also a similar deficiency in sentimental sugar. Towards the end of the first half of the play, Benjamin Dilloway’s Darcy, with an excellent sense of comic timing, finally tells Tafline Steen’s Elizabeth, ‘I love you – no doubt you feel inferior’. For this scene, Darcy and Lizzie face each other, Dilloway’s tall, pouty figure looking out into the audience over the brunette head of his beloved. This means that Lizzie has her back to us, and we do not at first see her expression. Soon enough, she turns, a quizzical look on her face, and the audience chuckles. The scene progresses, as it must, with her rejection of Darcy’s proposal, but all the following lines struggle against that chuckle-inducing moment, and the attempts at sentimental stress end up feeling out of key.
This is a production that likes repetition. The same staging, that of Darcy facing forward and Lizzie with her back to us, is repeated after the interval, this time for Darcy’s second proposal. There is again no chance to see the face of our heroine until she turns around once more and, once more, the audience obliges with a laugh. From this point on at least, there is no awkwardness: we are carried forward to Mrs Bennet’s resounding conclusion with our hearts lightened. Even the potentially painful spectacle of a pregnant Charlotte Lucas reading news of Lizzie’s engagement passes by without any complicated emotion. Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s methodical demolition of Elizabeth Bennet (the scene immediately preceding Darcy’s proposal) is fast eclipsed, not least because its slow cruelty dragged in performance, doomed to feel out of place in this particular version of Austen’s world, despite all that the considerable stage presence of Doña Croll’s interpretation of the noble lady could give to it.
Pride and Prejudice thus ended where it began, and as the audience burst into applause, I clapped dutifully and asked myself whether I had come to this play looking for the wrong thing. There is little satire or sentiment here, but there is a sparkling, energetic exhibition of the novel’s comic side. Such an approach works wonderfully in the theatre: there is never a dull moment, and scene flowed into scene as smoothly as the stage rotated. Am I churlish to want something different? Would a production that found more of Austen’s sharp edges have pleased so many for so long? I doubt it. Sometimes I worry I am becoming a snob.
Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Simon Reade and directed by Deborah Bruce, toured the UK from 31st January to 25th February.