“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” is also universally known by all bookworms, theatre attendees and anyone who has sat in an A level classroom to be the opening line of Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice. With words and characters so well-known, revered and adored by millions, trying to do the original work justice whilst putting a unique spin on the classic tale is a tall order. But I can confidently say that Simon Reade’s touring adaptation of this story of romance, rejection and rigid societal expectations conquered the formula. It brought a freshness to the stage whilst fearlessly defending the heart of the book.
Theatre and I have been entangled in an historic love affair for two decades, yet watching Pride and Prejudice on opening night at Wales Millennium Centre was an exciting first. An hour before the show begins, the foyer, café and bar area are buzzing with theatre-goers discussing various chapters, characters, and of course, the dashing Mr Darcy. I too am stood Peroni in hand daydreaming of corsets, top hats and spending all future Tuesday evenings watching a treasured book come to life on stage.
The performance takes place against the backdrop of a simplistic set which convincingly doubles as the Bennet household, Netherfield Park and Pemberley as the characters set your imagination alight. One of the most striking things about the performance is the way in which the Bennet sisters are not painted as hysterical husband-hunters, but as women forced to conform to female ideals and find their feet in a patriarchal world.
Mrs Bennet is also shown in a more favourable light. To be a mother of five daughters would undoubtedly have been a demanding job. It would have been sewn with the stresses of training them to be the shining lights of society – lights which were engineered to captivate and enchant the leading men of the community before their youth and beauty faded. Mrs Bennet is often depicted as a silly and shallow woman who is driven by the pursuit of social advancement and fortune. Yet Felicity Montagu displays her depth as well as her frivolity and animated dramatics. She appears to be a clever and resourceful woman who uses the perceived weakness of women to her advantage. She exaggerates her nerves to get her own way. She uses Jane’s sex as a pawn when sending her to Netherfield in a storm. She passes on her stubbornness and inability to surrender to Elizabeth.
This production, which celebrates Austen’s bicentenary, modernises the story whilst maintaining the integral nostalgic elements. The multicultural cast is refreshing, yet the Black and Asian performers’ acting prowess overshadows their skin colour as their defining characteristic. Daniel Abbott brings the beguiling charm of Mr Wickham to life in a cleverly understated way, whilst Kirsty Rider’s Miss Bingley is exaggeratedly condescending, conceited and comic.
Elizabeth’s 21st century sarcasm is also a nod to modern day feminism. She is a character you can imagine watching the Gilmore Girls, reading Zadie Smith and protesting at a Women’s March. Whilst Mr Darcy isn’t portrayed in the traditional sense. Instead of appearing as a rigid and brooding man, Benjamin Dilloway exposes his awkwardness and vulnerability, making the character more humble and human. Yet, despite of all of these characters’ originality, the award for the stand-out performance has to be given to Steven Meo as Mr Collins. From the moment he walks onstage, his energetic eccentricity demands your full attention and ensures that not a single audience member leaves without having experienced a belly laugh or shed humour stained tears.
As the opening words of the play are repeated as the curtain is drawn, I am still enchanted by Austen’s storytelling and this rejuvenating production. Whilst watching the story unfold, despite having read the book and watched numerous film and TV adaptations, the pedigree of this cast leave me believing in the characters’ authenticity and uncertain of the story’s end. I am completely hypnotised by the acting, costumes, the orchestra and a 19th century woman’s ability to continue to captivate, educate and entertain 21st century imaginations.