Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort of) – Royal Lyceum

Written by Isobel McArthur, after Jane Austen

Directed by Isobel McArthur and Simon Harvey

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It takes vision to reinvigorate a text, particularly a homogenous genre-defining work of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Ignore every preconception you may have about the Romantic Drama of Austen’s literary classic and enable Isobel McArthur to pulverise those ideas – and then lovingly forge those pieces into the same story, but in a way, you never even conceived.

There is no secret to the production’s merit of thrusting the women who define the story to the front line of narrative importance. And for those concerned, under McArthur and Simon Harvey’s direction fret not about the doe-eyed glances and gooey gowns which we all so admire, as Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) retains an admiration of the groundwork Austen achieved – and the oft-forgotten postures she championed.

But vitally, McArthur’s set-up immediately dispels class barriers, even building upon this throughout in a more nuanced manner than expected and repairs the forgotten faction of Austen’s work. The tale is told not from the fireside or over dribbles of claret, but the stains of bleach and *ahem* unmentionables at the bottom of a plunger. Five serving staff, the background characters who keep the houses warm and the drinks flowing, but are never named or celebrated, re-tell the story of the Bennet family.

This forthcoming and fierce feminist revision (or rather enlightening) interweaves itself so precisely within McArthur’s language that it comes over beautifully as instinctual and in-your-face. The servants recount the same path of events of the tumultuous relationship of Mr Darcy (McArthur) and Elizabeth Bennet (Leah Jamieson). While in the background, the foreground, and occasionally in the Dress Circle, the lives and struggles of the remaining Bennet sisters and their aggravating aggrieved mother (also McArthur) as they fret about their financial and romantic futures.

Writer, director, heartthrob: McArthur has a lot on their plate, don’t they? And yet, nothing feels artificial – indeed every ounce of McArthur’s stern-eyed Darcy or bombastic Mrs Bennet is played to perfection in both projection and character. They make the perfect foils for Jamieson’s astute Elizabeth, lobbing grenades at one another until an explosive force of laughter erupts across the Lyceum.

Eton has entered the chat. Perhaps the sole time the blundering buffoonery of the Etonesque ‘charm’ has drawn – Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s return to the role of Charles Bingley is instantly recognisable brilliance. There’s a more nuanced balance this time between the four parts Jarrett-Scott undertakes, who achieves more costume changes than current-Cabinet ministers (and a slicker job at that too), manifesting fully realised personalities and physicality, retaining emotional integrity with the likes of Charlotte Lucas.

Far from alone in this endeavour, there is equality across the performance with the five performers. And though this is less than the original production, it somehow enhances the chaos and becomes an even finer demonstration of their superb capabilities. Tori Burgess returns to provide their lustrous anger and joviality as younger sisters Mary and Lydia, and plays off remarkably with Christina Gordon’s charming Jane, the pair doing a tremendous job under Michael John McCarthy’s musical direction of some rather choice Karaoke belters. And lending some much-needed fear as a quite terrifying Lady Catherine, Gordon’s magnificent costume only momentarily alleviates the terror imposed by her sudden and horror-struck arrival.

Designer Ana Inès Jabares-Pita’s set is a grand affair, chiefly comprising an extensive staircase to enable entrances fitting of the refinery of character – but its true strength is embedded in the synchronicity with Colin Grenfell’s lighting. Largely pastel colours, with a dressing of pearly white, the set enchants whenever Grenfell’s lighting makes a swift change of location, the colour aflush through the theatre to match the grand simplicity of Jabares-Pita’s costume. 

There’s a revolting highbrow attitude, not only within aspects of the novel itself but of the reverence and dialogue surrounding Pride & Prejudice. On both sides mind you, of its place as both untouchable brilliance or conceited tripe – McArthur tears up the novel, and then lovingly and painstakingly reforges it with mascara run-off, Quality Street wrappers, and some choice vino stains. There is undeniable respect and understanding: picking apart issues of class, sexism, financial pressure, and social exploitation. It’s an invigorating piece of perfection-based comedy, unafraid to get its hands dirty with the serving staff, and then throw on a gown and get down and dirty with the aristocracy; Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is marvellous, and precisely the tonic required for those long-drawn Autumn eves. 

Forthcoming & Fierce Feminism

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) runs at the Royal Lyceum until November 5th. Running time: two hours and 20 minutes (including one interval).

Tickets for which may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Matt Crockett

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