I must confess to never having read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—not even the version with added zombies. I’ve somehow also missed the miniseries, any movies, and other stage adaptations. To be honest, I never really thought the story would interest me. Perhaps I, too, am a victim of that same malady of prejudice to which Austen makes Elizabeth Bennet susceptible in her most famous and enduring work.
This adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, by Janet Munsil of Victoria, BC, is fast-paced and full of humour. Yes, it’s a love story, or rather several entwined love stories. The sensible Mr. Bennett (Allan Morgan) and his conniving wife (Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan) have five daughters: Elizabeth (Shannon Taylor), Jane (Gemma James-Smith), Mary (Pippa Leslie), Lydia (Laura Huckle), and Kitty (Léda Davies)—but no sons. On Mr. Bennett’s death, there being no male heir, the estate is to fall to his clergyman cousin Mr. Collins (Pierre Brault). To ensure their survival, it is essential to marry off each of the Bennett sisters. The lucky arrival of Mr. Bingley (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett) next door—which in the English countryside is understood to be miles away—provides an opportune target. He is accompanied by his sister Caroline (Anna Cummer) and the somewhat aloof Mr. Darcy (Tyrell Crews) along with his sister Georgiana (Julia Guy). The sparring match—or courtship ritual, then as now indistinguishable—between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy begins almost immediately. To shore up the eligible-bachelor-to-unmarried-daughter ratio, George Wickham (Karl H. Sine), a military officer, captures the attention of the younger Bennett sisters but has an undisclosed past involving Mr. Darcy. The cast is rounded out by Elizabeth’s close friend Charlotte Lucas (Ellen Close), the Bennetts’ uncle and aunt Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner (Michael Spencer-Davis and Alix Sideris), Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Terry Tweed, who doubles as Mr. Darcy’s housekeeper) and her daughter Anne (a second role for Léda Davies).
Some kind soul has gone to the trouble to chart out the relationships between these major characters on Wikipedia. Although it’s by no means necessary to understand the play, it is helpful to verify, at a glance, that all the most important characters in the novel are represented in this adaptation, and that it seems to deviate very little from the plot and events. Purists may breathe easy.
Among the small crowd on stage, Ottawa audiences will recognize Alix Sideris, playing a nuanced Mrs. Gardiner opposite the also-familiar Michael Spencer-Davis, and Pierre Brault, whose physical comedy as Mr. Collins is a scream every time he hits the stage. The majority of the cast is Calgary-based, with this production as their début appearance on the NAC stage.
It’s a big cast. There are nine characters on stage at once within the first ten minutes of the play, and they each have lines. The voice coach, Jane MacFarlane, has done a super job. For the most part, the cast is clear, projecting, and maintaining their accents. There are exceptions; those who cannot project strain, but the pace is such that one hardly cares as the next character’s lines follow swiftly.
The best moments of the action overall occur between Crews and Taylor, and McMurtry-Howlett (those more perceptive than I will remember him instantly from the undercurrents run of Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show) in their respective romantic climaxes. The story takes characters through a variety of settings quite remote to each other; this is an easy problem for film or television, solved by cutting, but on stage it requires one or another form of ingenuity.
In this case, Patrick Clark’s set is as pages torn from a book: that is, the very stage appears to be made of bound pages and gigantic paper flowers adorn the proscenium. Combined with Jock Munro’s lighting, this serves to suggest a variety of locations. However, Clark has also taken advantage not only of furniture but of flying in scenery to separate scenes. Considering that all transitions are performed in view of the audience, this is no mean (nor cheap) feat, and very well done.
As in all romances, to have a story at all there must be something that keeps two potential lovers apart. It would be all too easy to gesture towards the title and say that Mr. Darcy’s Pride and Liz Bennett’s Prejudice keep them, and Jane and Bingley, from quickly pairing up and rabbiting off based on their obvious compatibility. This is indeed the case, but what’s at the root of Darcy’s pride? It’s the same thing that makes Mr. Collins a simpering sycophant, that renders young Lydia an outcast from her own family, that makes Elizabeth’s defiance of Lady de Bourgh so shocking: the traditional English system of patrilineal peerage and inheritance. Almost every conflict in the play traces a very short path back to this common cause. Before you release that deep sigh of exasperation, I would remind you that Downton Abbey is based on the same premise. Indeed, it’s so often a theme in English literature that one wonders why they didn’t take the hint and give it up ages ago. (Clever undergraduates may find plenty of material in the use of conversation while dancing to underscore the social strictures in these cases.)
I don’t know whether it’s a failing of the source material itself or a necessary omission to keep the adaptation to under three hours, but a couple of minor characters and their associated plot points are left hanging. In particular, the final confrontation between Elizabeth Bennet and Lady de Bourgh doesn’t feel very final at all. If this were a martial arts film, it would merely signal a sequel where they fight to the death. But, as I understand it, very few romances have sequels.
Pride and Prejudice is great at this pace on the stage, and the balance of the story with humour will make it perfectly accessible to both romance fans and those who can tolerate a little romance thrown in with their comedy. I understand that it’s selling well enough for the run to have been extended; contact the NAC if you seek tickets.
Pride and Prejudice runs from November 21-December 12 at the National Arts Centre Theatre, a co-production of NAC English Theatre and Theatre Calgary.