Pride and Prejudice – Genesian Theatre gives us some deep Austen love. (Theatre Review)

 

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I love Pride and Prejudice, which I know, singles me out as completely ordinary among white western women. It’s a novel I read at least once a year, because by golly the woman can write. I’m not one of these who subscribes to the notion she wrote the first “romcom”  – which is nonsense – lets not forget her writing was so ahead of its time, so subversive, that she died unknown and penniless. Her work, a crucial part of the transition to 19th century realism, was marginally revived fifty years after her death, but it was not until the 1940’s, well over a century since her death, that she began to appeal to a broader audience. My personal opinion is, we’re still catching up to Jane Austen – there is no writer her equal for characterisation, and yes, that includes Dickens.

So I was more than thrilled, along with everyone in the audience on opening night, to be heading into town to the lovely Genesian theatre for a couple of hours of pure Austen porn. This is definitely a production for the true believers, because its charm lies not in its value as a straight forward production, but in its multifarious differences and comparisons with previously produced works of P&P, not the least of which is the 1995 BBC mini series that has become the go to benchmark, to the extent that Colin Firth played modern Darcy in Bridget Jones primarily to deconstruct the stereotype vision everyone had of him as Darcy. Cleverly, this Reade/Gimblett adaptation both leans in on and avoids the connection to the series, using Carl Davis’ written score, while Reade’s lines makes subtle departures such as the inclusion of Charles Bingley’s sillier dialogue (the book paints him as good-natured but a bit of a flibberty jibbert) while sublimating characters like Jane and Wickham for the sake of time. In this adaptation there are shades of Barbra Leigh-Hunt in Sandra Bass’ Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but (cleverly) nothing of Colin firth in Chris James’ Darcy, nor Elizabeth Ehle in Jena Napoletano’s Elizabeth. Both leads make the roles their own completely, with James’ playing Darcy’s aloof attitude almost as a haughty shyness and Napoletano playing Elizabeth with a deep, lost genuine charm, a woman born in the wrong time, who can’t really find her way to making sense of her surroundings. These are interesting and different takes on literature’s favourite couple and add some thrill for those of us who know this much-loved book so well.

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One of the best things about the Gensian production is the beautiful choreography by Ylaria Rogers. We forget just how important dancing is to Jane Austen as a tool for the analysis of the broader society she so deeply criticised, but this production brings it right home, with a lot of emphasis on that strange and lovely movement we admire with a sense of bewilderment. On a small stage, with a very large cast, the dance is perfectly organised and revelatory, again taking its cue from the BBC adaptation, but imbued with a freshness that live theatre can bring. Its thrilling to watch and the cast do a wonderful job bringing it to life as we stare fascinated and just a tiny bit envious.

Standouts in the performance are Timothy Bennett as Mr Bennet, bringing his own sense of comic timing to some of the most well known lines in the novel, Shane Bates who also makes the most of some of the best lines in the book as Mrs Bennet, and remarkably, Heather Bennie as Mary Bennet, a role that had as few as four lines (if I counted correctly) but each delivered with such an acute sense of performance and timing that they stole the show with each delivery. Camilla Vernon is an excellent Caroline Bingley, very successfully holding her own with a more openly bitchy Caroline than is often portrayed, but with Vernon, it really works well, plus the aforementioned Sandra Bass as Lady Catherine is great to watch.  Rod Stewart’s Sir William Lucas had me chuckling a lot also. This is a large cast with a great deal to say and do, so it is to director Owen Gimblett’s credit that they interweave as seamlessly as they do. Gimblett designed the set as well, an enormous double door affair that dramatically changes the interiors to represent the different homes and levels of grandeur, and well placed lighting does all the rest. The only difficulty I noticed was with Peter Henson’s costume design, which seemed a little too ambitious, the multiple layers restricting the casts movement and in some cases given them an odd shape. Still, this is a very small complaint about what was no doubt a difficult task, to provide all those multiple outfits for so many characters and if the women seemed a little burdened, the men looked very dashing in all their multiple garb.

At the end of the opening night performance, the crowd fell into rhythmic clapping to the music after we had all cheered for the wonderful cast as they took their bow, filled with that special joy and mirth only Jane Austen seems to be able to evoke. This is a production for the so many of us who adore Pride and Prejudice, love the multitudinous adaptations and can’t think of much better than spending an evening with Elizabeth, Mr Darcy and the very brilliant Jane Austen herself.

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