Pride and Prejudice
by Kate Hamill, adapted from the novel by Jane Austen; directed by Birgitta Victorson
Note: I'm deliberately withholding the name of the city, the theater company and the actors to protect my privacy from SPAMbots and other unsavory internet people. If you're reading this, I'm providing enough details for you to look it up.
While I enjoyed this funny, romantic romp, it wasn't really Jane Austen's story. It's sort of Baz Luhrmann does Jane Austen and Henry Fielding with social commentary. There are some contemporary music segments and a lot of bawdy jokes. You'll never hear the word ball again without giggling like Lydia Bennet.
This is a story about four sisters: pretty, sweet Jane; not pretty, witty, anti-marriage Lizzie, ugly, bird-loving Mary and man crazy, wild child Lydia. Kitty is represented through Mary coughing and moaning. The only other sibling to appear in this production is Caroline Bingley. Louisa Hurst is cut out and never mentioned, as is Mrs. Phillips and the Gardiners but Georgiana Darcy is mentioned although she is never seen. There are several other changes to the story, especially in Act 2.
Sometimes the modern music segments worked, such as when Caroline Bingley stepped out on stage doing "the Vogue." I can see her in her mind thinking "Oh yeah! I'm a superstar in this hick town!" It didn't work when the Bennet sisters turn into seedy nightclub dancers a la the movie Showgirls. I wasn't crazy about the Journey music used to heighten the romantic tension at the end but the audience seemed to love it.
I loved it best when the actors spoke Jane Austen's words or close to them. Sometimes the line began with Jane's words "Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?" was changed to family instead of connections. The playwright also included one of my favorite Mr. Bennet quips “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.” However, most of the words were not Jane's and many of the best lines were cut out, including Mr. Darcy's speech about being brought up in pride and conceit.
The Meryton Assembly was more of a disaster than the Netherfield Ball. Lydia consumes too much rum punch and behaves badly and Mama Bennet is embarrassing to the extreme. The Bennets are more overtly fortune hunters in this production, even Lizzie. Lizzie states that someone must save the family and it should be Jane because she's so pretty and sweet that someone (Bingley) will fall in love with her. Bingley is portrayed as an ignorant puppy without many thoughts in his head. He sees Jane and it's love at first sight. Lizzie and Darcy's "meet cute" is SUPER awkward by anyone's standards and he handled it badly, leading to the rest of the misunderstandings. Darcy does explain his feelings to Bingley and explains why he needs to leave the Assembly ASAP!
One scene I found especially funny was Lizzie's rejection of Mr. Collins. She yells at him, literally runs away and her pursues her around the stage, into the theater, around the audience. She manages to run ahead down into the seats and back on stage where she hides behind the sofa. Collins can't take a hint without Lizzie yelling at him.
I appreciated that the playwright added in a lot of the social context. Right away the actors come out and explain, not yet in character, the type of society the characters live in, where there aren't many opportunities for women and women are expected to marry and marry up. At the Netherfield Ball, Lizzie and Darcy have a wonderful conversation (they never would have been able to speak like that at a ball) about their outlooks on life and expectations. Lizzie knows very little of her own life is out of her control, so she just laughs at herself and circumstances. Darcy is very proud. He doesn't know how to laugh at himself or see the absurdity in a situation. Lizzie refers to marriage as a game and Charlotte adds her thoughts about lack of prospects and putting oneself more forward to catch a man, as she does in the book. Sadly, Lizzie's remarks about marriage being a game are taken literally by Lydia and she "wins the prize" in Wickham without understand what it is she has done to her reputation and her sisters' reputations. I think this was a nice addition considering the context of the novel sometimes gets lost in adaptations and students and people reading the novel for the first time don't really understand the social structure of 19th-century English society.
In the second act, the original novel gets lost in order to condense time and utilize only 8 actors. Lizzie goes to Kent to visit Charlotte who is making the best of her marriage to Collins. Charlotte is played by the same actor who portrays Mr. Bennet. This dual role didn't quite take me in. Yes Charlotte is plain but here she's has an unattractive, old man face and is very tall. The actor is able to sincerely deliver Charlotte's lines and almost make me believe he is a spinster turned housewife. Then the story goes all wrong. Darcy becomes extremely impassioned. I didn't like the change to the story. He tells her right away of Wickham's misdeeds and why he took Bingley away. He apologizes for that but also insults her family. Lizzie yells and yells at him, even after knowing that he had good intentions for doing what he did. She isn't sure who is telling the truth- Wickham or Darcy. She doesn't want to marry and certainly not Darcy! He takes off unhappily and Lizzie confides in Charlotte.
A week later Lizzie is accompanying the Collinses, Lady Catherine and Anne to Pemberley where she has an awkward meeting alone with Lady Catherine who proceeds to insult her. Then Darcy shows up unexpectedly and is bashful yet kind. Before they can become friends, news of Lydia's elopement reaches Derbyshire and Lizzie must return home. I love the Pemberley section of the novel. It shows Mr. Darcy changes for Lizzie and how sweet he is to his sister. His home and his behavior show Lizzie what kind of man he is. This can't happen in a week! Lizzie needs time to process what she learns and Darcy needs time to let Lizzie's words sink in and see what kind of friend to Georgiana Lizzie will be. Part of the charm of this story is the getting to know each other better.
Another minor change is back at Longbourn where there's no sign of Lydia. A big change comes when Mr. Bennet is having an attack of nerves and Mrs. Bennet is there to support him and care for him. She gets silly again when Lydia returns, triumphantly married with her Wickham. She accidentally reveals what Mr. Darcy did for them but it's too late and Mr. Bennet kicks Wickham out of the house. I didn't get a good sense of Wickham's character in this novel. He laughs with Lizzie over her crazy family and then runs off with Lydia at the end. He becomes more forceful with Lydia and I believe she isn't happy with what she thought she wanted.
The ending is so wrong. If you like the Keira Knightley movie then you may enjoy this but I like it as written, with Mr. Darcy explaining his behavior and not acting like a lovesick fool. There is lots of commentary here on the roles of women and marriage. Lizzie is still confused. How do you know what will make a successful marriage? You don't. You trust that your partner loves you and you love him.
I felt very sorry for Mary in the end. She's the forgotten, awkward sibling, always fighting with Lydia. She has only her pet bird to love because no one else loves her. Mary's story made me sad.
Having only 8 actors works surprisingly well. It took me awhile to catch on that Mary was also Mr. Bingley! Remove the dress, add a silly wig and the actress was transformed! I especially LOVED the actor portraying Caroline Bingley and Mr. Collins. Yes- actor. I recognized his name as a long time member of the company and dreadful English accent aside, he was magnificent. Caroline struts, she flutters her fan, she flirts and she makes catty comments while sashaying around the stage. Mr. Collins is extremely foppish and foolish. He has some kind of strange speech pattern- drawing out his words and adding odd noises, making him seem extra silly. As the actor has to quick change, he doesn't have time to remove his Caroline makeup, making Collins extra foppish. Another stand out is the actress playing Lydia and Lady Catherine. Lydia is energetic, silly and fights with Mary. Lydia loves balls and is eager to have them (take that as a double entendre). She's a more energetic, wild and free version of her original novel self. Lady Catherine is appropriately haughty, carries a walking stick cum parasol and is just like you expect her to be. It was amazing to see such a transformation from one character to the next and back again! I wasn't crazy about a woman playing Mr. Darcy. Not that she didn't act the part well, just that it was hard to imagine a petite woman as tall, dark Mr. Darcy. We all have our own image of Mr. Darcy in our heads so just because this Mr. Darcy wasn't MY Mr. Darcy doesn't mean she isn't Mr. Darcy.
The costumes are by and large excellent. The costume designer, Olivera Gajic, researched period stays (corset) and each actress had a different type depending on their needs. One had long stays, one had stays that tied in front (possibly a bodied petticoat) and another had short stays. The women did wear drawers but well, modern women aren't used to wearing nothing down there and there is a lot of physical activity in the show. The day dresses on Lizzie and Jane looked pretty good. The prints looked about right for the 1813 date and the style of dresses on Lizzie, Jane and Mary looked about right. There were minor details that were off-like lace and cameo style brooches. Lydia's purple checked day dress was made from downright hideous modern synthetic material that no doubt looked better to the back row of the audience than it did to me in the front row. The costumes suited the characters' personalities. My personal favorite is Mrs. Bennet's wedding cake hat!
My seat was in front on the side of the stage so I got a full view of... the sofa, the punch bowl, backstage costume quick change area and the backs of the actors so at times it was hard to see their faces and facial expressions but not always and I could hear them loudly enough to know what was happening and what the characters are thinking and feeling.
I enjoyed the show well enough but I've seen other funny Pride and Prejudice adaptations that were not so bawdy and not so noisy. It's worth the experience to see the show in a different light but Janeites go into it without expectations in order to enjoy the show more.