Saturday 25th August 2018 at Roundhay Park, Leeds.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is one of, if not the greatest work of Jane Austen… David Kerby-Kendall has taken up the perilous task of adapting this classic for the stage, condensing a sweeping narrative into around two hours – and it’s an impressive result performed by Heartbreak Productions.
In a stroke of outdoor theatre genius, this isn’t a straightforward performance of a story, rather it’s ‘A Guide to Higher Etiquette and Manners’ delivered to we plebeians by ‘The Association of Higher Etiquette and Manners’ – there are periodic breaks from the story in which our actors clarify for us the social politics we are watching as teaching points for the betterment of our unrefined souls.
Tongue-in-cheek and playful, it’s a way into a complex tale which completely bypasses the danger of stuffiness so real when performing a text with such dated language and context as this. Director Rebecca Gadsby directs a cast of five who perform 20 roles amongst them. There’s a lot of graft and token bonnets and jackets involved with this ambitious approach, and the cast do a brilliant job of keeping us all with them throughout this eventful piece.Pride and Prejudice is a vision of high, polite society which toes the line between comic observations of the many flaws of those deeming themselves superior and a biting social commentary exploring the constraints of the 19th Century’s attitude to courting and mingling – particularly for women. Elizabeth Bennett is one of five daughters with a marriage and status-obsessed mother and hen-pecked father with an endearing gentle spirit. The most sensible and intelligent of her sisters, Lizzie is a wise ear to her love-sick sister Jane and a good example to her younger sisters – presumably even the comically absent Mary who feeds her mind studying rather than hunting down the prospect of a prosperous marriage.
Abigail Castleton’s Elizabeth is all she should be: proud, strong-willed, discreetly witty and charitable of spirit…and unwittingly naive. Castleton’s smirks and mockeries and even her intensities often reminded me of Nicola Walker, giving her an extra and unexpected layer of intrigue. This Lizzie is more playful than most and that works in favour of this production which is designed to leave the audience as light of heart as the swooning lovers and the unwitting fools alike.In the role of every tightly wound female in this adaptation is Samantha Dart. As Mrs Bennett, she excels best, with endless chatter, tantrums, lamentations and demands at an ear-piercing pitch, she’s a force to be reckoned with – and makes the best use of a fan I’ve seen in recent times! As Caroline Bingley, the pitch drops but the disdainful expressions remain as Dart makes sure to deliver ‘snooty’ with unmistakeable clarity. Lady Catherine de Bourgh seems inspired by any cantankerous dame character of Dame Maggie Smith and though slightly less impactful after seeing Dart already crafting two very similar unpleasant women, each role convinces.
I’d say a sixth player would give the production greater opportunity to show the various strengths of each cast member, allowing those such as Dart more room to show greater range – and to give the audience slightly more defined female villains. This ambitious level of multi-rolling continues with Lauren Moakes portraying Jane, Charlotte, Lydia and Miss Darcy. Moakes fares better with characters showing natural differences and she does well to separate the quiet, delicate Jane with the excitable Lydia and the unromantic, rational Charlotte. Likewise, Ben Thorne’s characters allow for range as Thorne channels the selectively attentive, principled and good humoured Mr Bennett and the stand-offish, superior and dismissive Mr Darcy – who naturally softens into the population’s favourite literary romantic hero. Castleton and Thorne make a perfect pairing of course, with both achieving that famous transition from disdain to deep, unfathomable connection but they also play to the comic aspects of their exchanges – bringing to light far more comic material than any BBC adaptation has been brave enough to venture into.
George Attwell takes the comedy trophy with his brilliant performance as Mr Collins – the man with the power to make the Bennet women homeless upon the death of their father (women were without rights to property, independence or a good life without a man in this era of course). Mrs Bennet is desperate to secure his favour by offering up a daughter and he in turn is super duper eager to secure a wife of some sort. Attwell’s physicality as this over-enthusiastic fool provides some of the most memorable moments of the whole play and prove Attwell to be a great talent. Attwell also plays Mr Bingley with great charm and Wickham with a pointed shiftiness among other minor roles in a performance likely as exhausting as it appears, but it’s all very appreciated by a tickled audience.
Personally, I don’t much appreciate the romance of Pride and Prejudice as most do; I’m far more interested in Austen’s often brutal characterisations of her comic characters, and this production certainly delivers the best of Austen’s work, as well as the inevitable romantic happy ending, which is played with great sincerity in a break from the steady comedy throughout. As far as outdoor productions go, this is thoroughly entertaining, pacy entertainment which acknowledges its setting frequently to draw attention to the charm and unique atmosphere of this branch of live performance – picnics, a tipple and good company are to be enjoyed as much as the entertainment on offer. As an adaptation of a giant of the English literary canon, this is skilfully done and very well performed by a cast as ambitious and energetic as the adaptation itself.
Heartbreak Productions’ Pride and Prejudice tours until September 1st 2018 and you can find venue information and tickets here. Also touring from this company is The Midnight Gang and more information about that show can be found here. Make sure you pick up a programme too – it promises more titters via a run-down of the many, many unspoken rules of etiquette the poor folks of times past had to endure!
Kind fore-warning: There’s a little whole-audience participation which will require you to abandon the picnic chair to learn a few moves, but it’s not too traumatic when the whole audience are having a go at once…