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Theatre Review: Pride & Prejudice

9th October 2017

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I had my own prejudices about modern adaptations of classic literature but, having recently heard Sara Pascoe participate on a comedy panel show on the theme of contemporary feminism, I was excited to see her interpretation.

The plot, if you don’t already know it, is that the sisters must find husbands as quickly as possible or face destitution. The entailment law is Georgian England means that when the father dies, the girls will be homeless, their only skills being to play the piano forte and perform daintily in company. Pascoe does not balk from portraying this situation for what it is; a tragedy and an outrageous injustice.

The first act centers around the female characters in a state of emergency. Each character is fully realised and given equal attention/ The Mother, Mrs. Bennet, is portrayed more sympathetically than in previous adaptations. Her hysteria seems totally understandable. The seeming confidence of Mr. Bennet to the impending crisis enraged me. It is well unto the first act that the drama begins to focus on Elizabeth, second daughter and protagonist of the novel.

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Comedy and drama fit seamlessly together in the first half as the family dynamic is established and we learn about each characters motivation. The show has some truly brilliant comedic performances, particularly Mr. Darcy (an adolescent Donald Trump), Mr. Collins (a South Park character) and Mary Bennet (hilarious, absurd, oblivious and delightful).

The choreography of the piece is very funny, mocking the mechanical regency style. A tightly choreographed piece involving mannequins raised gales of laughter and applause from the audience.

The comedy dialogue cleverly heightens the sense of emergency. Satirical at times (“secure him first, plenty of time to be happy afterwards”).

The period drama is interspersed with short, cut-away scenes set in the modern day. We see a teacher explaining the text in a classroom, a TED Talk about Love in Austen’s Time, rehearsal room discussions where the actors agonise over their characters motivations, the scenes in a TV editing suite where two technicians debate how best to tell the story (each arguing for their own gender over ‘who is the biggest arsehole? Lizzy or Darcy?)

This present day commentary serves the function of a kind of Cliff Notes, but personally I found the main characters were drawn so clearly it in fact added very little for me. Pascoe’s intelligent dialogue had done more than enough to give them everything they needed.

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The score by Emmy the Great was excellent. It sees the character’s break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, pleading with us “don’t judge us, you would do the same”. The song “Entailment” is a stirring explanation of the injustice of the law that prohibits daughters from inheriting.

The set was incredible, the stage was filled with a giant gilded birdcage. Ingenious use of hanging window panels, added and removed between scenes to indicate a new interior. A huge glass panel hangs behind the cage, during tense scenes the light reflects off the glass and suddenly we are watching the characters trapped inside a hot house. This giant terrarium metaphor was so affecting that I only recognised what it was when the lift shifted, the glass became invisible again, and I felt a palatable relief as the claustrophobic hothouse turned back into the less stifling confinement of the birdcage. Economical yet powerful.

The second act flowed less smoothly than the first, too much commentary perhaps because we were now so invested in the fate of the Bennet sisters. The cutaways to contemporary situations and the comedy lines seems distracting and incongruous. A few jokes got no reaction as all.: we cared too much about the characters to laugh. I even found myself sympathizing with the catty, cutthroat characters, Miss Bingley and Miss de Burgh, so vividly has Pasco portrayed the miserable desperation of the dog-eat-dog climate that these women were trapped in.

The drama builds to a brilliantly satirical pantomime style grand finale. Glitter confetti is thrown and Beyonce’s All the Single Ladies plays as a dripping wet Mr. Wickham storms the stage to rapturous applause (a nod to Colin Firth’s infamous Darcy moment). We’re laughing but under no illusion that this happy ending is as much the conclusion to an “escape from disaster” story as it is a story of love.

Pride & Prejudice shows at York Theatre Royal until Saturday 14 October. Book below.

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