Photo: Barbara Gray
Jane Austen’s novels have become synonymous with passion and romance in genteel society, none more so than the legendary Pride and Prejudice. The novel is a love story, but it’s also a story about social ranking, wealth (or lack thereof), and moral as well as snap judgment. Many of us have seen ourselves as the spirited, intelligent Elizabeth Bennet and have pined over the seemingly proud yet really affectionate Mr. Darcy. The book is an example of simmering passion and subtle, yet powerful societal Austinian jabs at its best. Although there are many different adaptations, this subtlety is key to the story. Unfortunately, the NAC/Theatre Calgary co-production at the National Arts Centre took away much of this key element and, coupled with a thoroughly bizarre set, managed to transform a very complex and human story into one littered with stereotypes and cheap laughs.
But first, the story. Told through a third person omniscient narrative, the story revolves around the Bennett family. A product of its time, the story’s key questions deal with inheritance and acquiring stability through marriage. Mr. Bennet is a member of the landed gentry with a house full of women – his overbearing wife, good Jane, intelligent and headstrong Elizabeth, bookish Mary, and silly Kitty and Lydia. Living in a time when women could not inherit property, they are all under pressure to marry and marry well, as their estate is to go to their ridiculous cousin, Mr. Collins. Imagine their excitement when the rich and eligible Mr. Bingley moves into a large house in the neighbourhood. Although matters are complicated by his snobbish sister, the proud, wealthy Mr. Darcy, and the family’s social missteps, a passion develops between Jane and Bingley, as well as Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (eventually). This latter affection, confusing to both parties, first manifests itself in hatred, but blossoms into one of the most popular loves stories of the last 200 years.
Set on a strange, drab stage cluttered with large rolls of what looks like papyrus and two large paper mache flowers suspended at both corners of the stage, the production has some good moments, but mostly lacks the subtle wit and humanity of Austen’s work. Pride and Prejudice is not an easy book to whittle down. This adaptation by Janet Munsil is pretty good. Barring a few instances of strangely modern language, she manages to present the bare bones of the text without losing the details so important to Austen’s work.
However, the subtlety is lost with the directorial choices. Although the production has some great moments, such as the perfectly awkward tea-drinking scenes at the Bngley’s and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for the most part, the play feels like it was chasing the audience, making sure it explained everything and made the jokes as obvious as possible. It did elicit many a laugh, but through cheap humour. For instance, the notoriously priggish Mr. Collins (played by an eager Pierre Brault) does not need to trip over himself and bump into everything. Sure, physical humour is funny, but Mr. Collins’ hilarity rests on the very fact that people like him could and do exist even today. Making a caricature out of him actually diminishes the humour and social commentary. The same goes for the reserved Mary Bennett (played by Pippa Leslie). Just because she’s a contrast to the rest of her sisters doesn’t mean she should become a robot, stilted movements and all.
Likewise, many of the actors struggled with portraying their roles in a realistic way. Most of the lines were yelled out, sacrificing our ability to understand characters’ nuances. This was particularly evident in Léda Davies’ Kitty Bennet, but came across at times in the other characters as well. Shannon Taylor’s Elizabeth Bennet lacks the spark and energy needed to make her character stand out, though by the end and especially during her confrontation with Darcy, she warms up to the role. Darcy (played by Tyrell Crews) came across as more awkward than proud throughout the play, which may have been a directorial choice, but it also made the transition much less great and Elizabeth’s pure hatred for him somewhat confusing and over the top.
By the ending of the play, both Crews and Taylor had warmed up to their characters, which made their realization of love sweet. Unfortunately, the moment was ruined by the paper mache flowers not only coming down over them but lighting up. Why this was needed, I still can’t really figure out.
The play had some good moments and some human moments. However, overall, much like the set, it ended up being bland and somewhat lifeless.
Pride and Prejudice plays at the NAC until December 8, 2012
by Jane Austen
adapted by Janet Munsil
Directed by Dennis Garnhum
Pierre Brault: Mr. Collins
Ellen Close: Charlotte Lucas
Tyrell Crews: Mr. Darcy
Anna Cummer: Caroline Bingley
Léda Davies: Kitty Bennet, Lady Anne de Bourgh
Julia Guy: Georgiana Darcy
Laura Huckle: Lydia Bennet
Gemma James-Smith: Jane Bennet
Philippa Leslie: Mary Bennet
Brendan McMurtry-Howlett: Mr. Bingley
Allan Morgan: Mr. Bennet
Alix Sideris: Mrs. Gardiner
Karl H. Sine: George Whickham
Michael Spencer-Davis: Mr. Gardiner
Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan: Mrs. Bennet
Shannon Taylor: Elizabeth Bennet
Terry Tweed: Lady Catherine de Bourgh
Assistant Director: Aaron Coates
Set and Costume Designer: Patrick Clark
Lighting Designer: Jock Munro
Production Dramaturg: Shari Wattling
Choreographer: Anita Miotti
Voice Coach: Jane MacFarlane
Stage Manager: Ailsa Birnie
Assistant Stage Manager: Erin Finn