It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a great Jane Austen novel must be in want of a dramatic adaptation. Certainly the screen versions of Pride and Prejudice are legion and now, courtesy of Simon Reade’s new dramatisation, the five Bennet sisters and their excitable mama spring to life on the Open Air stage. It is a pleasing fit: the empire lines, bonnets and breeches all look very handsome among the roses and wrought iron of the gracious Regent’s Park (a fact embraced by Max Jones’s elegant ironwork set) and Deborah Bruce’s spry, witty production uses the revolving stage to create a bustling social world. It’s 200 years since the book was published, but Austen’s astute observation of human behaviour remains as enjoyable as ever.
Inevitably, though, you lose much in the journey from page to stage. No adaptation can do justice to Austen’s sharp, subtle, ironic prose and even some of the famous exchanges are somehow magnified and coarsened when delivered across a stage at full pelt. And there is a great deal of incident to get through, creating a rather breathless rate of action, losing ironic nuances, making the various romantic reversals seem absurdly abrupt, and broadening characterisation.
Still, Reade’s fluid version adroitly balances plot essentials and detailed scenes. Both he and Bruce emphasise that, wonderful rom-com as this story is, it is also an acerbic analysis of the period’s suffocating social strictures and economic limits on women, for whom marriage was generally the only route to financial security. This staging cannily foregrounds those who lose out in the tough marriage market, destined to remain “spinsters” or marry unhappily to avoid penury.
And what does translate well to drama is Austen’s brilliant depiction of character. Jennifer Kirby makes an excellent stage debut as Elizabeth Bennet, tracing the journey towards wisdom of this lovely, feisty heroine, with David Oakes suggesting depth in his distant demeanour as Mr Darcy. Yolanda Kettle and Rob Heaps run them a close second as the sweet-natured Jane and Mr Bingley. Ed Birch is very funny as the pompous Mr Collins, his extraordinarily spindly legs folding like a travelling stool, while Jane Asher oozes hauteur as Lady Catherine De Bourgh.
Meanwhile Bruce’s staging is bright with observant little details. Silent servants scurry through the background or kneel to fix a young lady’s drooping hemline, reminding us of those not even admitted to this desperate marital merry-go-round.