Pride and Prejudice on stage

Last week I went on a rare trip to the theatre, to see a production of Pride and Prejudice at Hull Truck Theatre.  It had a high concept selling point: this particular take on Austen’s novel retained twenty one characters, but they were all played by only two performers, one female (Joannah Tincey) and one male (Nick Underwood).  (The play was directed by Abigail Anderson.)

On the whole, this approach worked very well, and created some interesting effects.  The performers often shifted quite rapidly between different characters, sometimes even stepping aside and continuing a conversation with the character/space they had just vacated.  They distinguished between their different roles partly through broad performances (which is a treatment that, as anyone who is reasonably familiar with Pride and Prejudice will know, several characters in the novel lend themselves quite readily to: Mrs Bennet, Lydia, Sir William Lucas, and perhaps most of all, Mr Collins), and partly through the judicious use of props: Mrs Bennet punctuated almost every phrase with the wave of a handkerchief; Mr Bennet was usually chewing on a pipe (and often slamming shut a book); Caroline Bingley brandished a fan; Mr Collins wore a black clergyman’s cap.  A shade more subtly, both performers were very adept at using carriage and posture to transform themselves from confident or overbearing characters to meek ones and back again. (Tincey’s sketch of Charlotte Lucas, hiding herself behind a pair of spectacles and nervously self-effacing mannerisms, was particularly vivid.)  Underwood did not play all the men and Tincey did not play all the women.  I was pleased to have confirmed my intuition that to see Bingley played by a woman would feel appropriate.  There was only one character whom the two performers took turns playing: Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

For me, one of the most interesting features of the production was the way that the novel’s narration was incorporated.  In the screen versions of Pride and Prejudice, if any of Austen’s words besides the direct speech of the characters are retained, they will tend to be put into characters’ mouths.  The novel’s famous first line, for example (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’) has sometimes been given to Elizabeth.  It is not a line one would wish to lose, but transferring it to a character is not without its costs.  As John Caughie so acutely puts it (in a passage I also found useful when I was thinking over one of my very favourite adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Lost in Austen), when the source of the novel’s opening observation is changed in this way,

It assigns to Lizzie a knowledge of her social and historical situation, a knowledge which in the novel is shared between author and reader over the heads of the characters. A Lizzie who has the wit to know escapes at least some of the ironies of prejudice. In adaptation, characters become knowing and textual irony, the discourse of the narrator, becomes Elizabeth Bennet’s arch knowingness. The ironic trope of an embryonic modernism regresses historically into the wit of an earlier classicism.

In the theatre production, the performers would often deliver lines from the novel’s narration whilst they were ‘between characters’, as it were – or perhaps one should say, standing partly inside and partly outside them (between sympathy and detachment, perhaps).  They spoke in the voice of a particular character, and used her or his mannerisms, but the audience understood, I take it, that it was not actually that character talking.  This is a very good and interesting way of approximating indirect free style, that literary technique Austen used so masterfully.  It is a style that ventriloquises characters, often taking their choices of vocabulary and so on, and turning these things against them for (in Pride and Prejudice especially) satirical effect.  It dances on the threshold of characters’ understandings of their lives and the people in them, speaking in voices which partly fit their perspectives but do not emanate from their consciousnesses.

The relationship that this production established between characters and audience, then, brought out interestingly some features of Pride and Prejudice that are often lost in translation – principally, the distance that stems from Austen’s irony and from the fact that as well as being populated by some rounded and psychologically satisfactory characters, the novel also features a cast of types, sketched vividly and in broad (and this word again, masterful) strokes.

As one might expect, the aesthetic cost that this incurs, if it be considered to be one, is that within such an overall tone it is harder to make intimate and deeply emotional moments for characters work as such for the audience.  When watching the production I was certainly impressed with its modulations of pace.  Scenes between Elizabeth and Darcy were given a good amount of room to breathe.  Nevertheless, my emotional engagement with this Lizzie and Darcy remained some distance from that which I feel when experiencing other versions, including the source text.

I wouldn’t want to end on a negative or ungrateful note though.  It is not possible for any text to deliver all potentially valuable aesthetic effects simultaneously, since many of these effects are mutually exclusive.  (This said, one measure of a truly great artist is her or his ability to range across and move between effects with greater facility than most mortals.)  This production made me see new things in a well-loved novel, created some novel effects, seemed to know what it wanted to do, and did those things very well.

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