Tyrell Crews as Mr. Darcy, Shannon Taylor as Elizabeth Bennet, photo by Trudie Lee
Pride and Prejudice
October 16 – November 11, 2012
Max Bell Theatre
If there is any doubt about the enduring and alluring power of Jane Austen’s 19th century story, Pride and Prejudice, one need only look at the number of modern adaptations and imitations as proof. From BBC’s television 1995 version which propelled Colin Firth to stardom to the 2001 mega Hollywood hit, Bridget Jones’ Diary to 2004’s Bollywood musical, Bride and Prejudice, Austen’s story still resonates with us almost 200 years after it was first published.
And now, Theatre Calgary has given this story about manners and class and morality a distinctly Western Canadian makeover. Dissatisfied with the available screenplays for Pride and Prejudice, Theater Calgary Artistic Director Dennis Garnhum hired Victoria playwright Janet Munsil to provide a completely fresh adaptation. The result is a beautifully realized economic reworking where the fat is trimmed from Austen’s prose and narrative, leaving a tightly told story that gives plenty of room for the cast to shine brightly.
The story, very much a product of its setting and time, deals humorously with the issues of class and inheritance in Georgian England. Mr. Bennett is an English country gentleman living surrounded by women – his overbearing wife and five daughters –good and beautiful Jane, the headstrong and clever Elizabeth, the bookish Mary, impish, silly Kitty and wild child Lydia. Having no male heirs, Mr. Bennet’s estate will be inherited by a distant cousin, leaving Mrs. Bennet fearful of what is to become of her and her unmarried daughters. So eager is Mrs. Bennet to marry off her girls and secure their future, that when Mr. Bingley, a rich upper-class gentleman buys a large house next door, she practically orders Jane, her eldest to make haste and see that she capture Mr. Bingley’s affections. But matters are complicated by Mr. Bingley’s companions – his snooty sister Caroline and the extraordinarily wealthy, dashing and proud Mr. Darcy, both of whom see the Bennets as beneath their kind and inappropriate marriage candidates. However despite this elitist backdrop, sparks fly when main character Elizabeth Bennet meets Mr. Darcy. Sparks that manifest firstly as a great hatred for one another but gradually evolve over time into one of the most enduring love stories ever told.
Set on a stage coloured with lovely pale pastel hues, huge papyrus-like background structures and large origami-esque ecru flowers framing the stage, Patrick Clark’s set design mixes the abstract with the romantic making way for many simple but effective prop changes that don’t clutter the actors or the action. And with seventeen cast members and numerous scenes, there is a lot not to get in the way of. Thankfully for the most part Director Denis Garnhum’s adroit and unfussy direction matches Munsil’s efficient adaptation, giving room for the uniformly talented cast to fill the space physically and spiritually. Perhaps Garnhum could have reined things in a bit, omitting a few transitions where flitting about seemed to be employed to cover up scene changes and doing away with the obvious and hackneyed open-shirt scene featuring Mr. Darcy. But these are small quibbles in an otherwise sure-footed piece of direction.
With the words and the sets and the direction firmly in place, this production of Pride and Prejudice opened the door for the audience to sit back and revel in the performances. While Austen’s characters can be criticized as clichéd or stereotypical, the cast played these stereotypes with such glee, intensity and masterful aptitude that you couldn’t help but laugh at them and with them as you eagerly went along for the ride.
In fact, with so many great performances, I’m afraid this review would drag on far longer than anyone wishes to read if I singled out every cast member. However it would be remiss not to mention the few that particularly stood out in my mind. Alan Morgan and Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet brought incredible humanness and much humour to their characters. In Tarhan’s able hands, Mrs. Bennet’s over the top domineering and angst never pushes into overwrought hysteria and Morgan’s expertly played moments with Elizabeth ooze fatherly love that one cannot help being touched by.
Unlike other productions I’ve seen where the lesser Bennet sisters fade away into a melange of one-dimensional background noise, the actresses in this production managed to bring each sister to the forefront and distinguish themselves, if not as fully rounded characters, them something more interesting than a convention. Kitty, the silly easily influenced daughter is perhaps the hardest role to shine in given the character’s superfluous role to play. But even with the narrative challenges, Leda Davis manages to bring an infectious energy to her performance that caused me to feel much greater fondness for the character than I have previously felt. It was a small role, but Davis made it stand out.
Another small role I left the theatre wowed by was Terry Tweed’s double bill as noblewoman Lady Catherine and Mrs. Reynolds, Darcy’s housekeeper. The two characters couldn’t have been more different in everything but age, but Tweed brought each one alive with subtle and particular gestures, cadence and nuance. Perhaps more than anyone in the cast, Tweed showcased that attention to detail and embodiment of a character can elevate a minor role into a masterful performance that I will not soon forget.
Nor will I forget Shannon Taylor as Elizabeth. It’s a role I’ve seen many times before and it’s a pet peeve of mine when the actresses cross the line between being headstrong over to being shrill and even prissy. With Taylor there was no such worry. Playing with confidence and emotional accuracy, Taylor’s Elizabeth took her place firmly at the center of the narrative and provided the perfect tone for her evolving relationship with Darcy. Even if it took a while for us to really root for her. Perhaps collateral damage from such a tight script or perhaps it just took a while for Taylor to warm up enough to win us over, but I found my affection for Elizabeth in this production to be a product of time rather than an instant liking. That said, when it was won, it was won completely.
Then of course there’s the role of Mr. Darcy, played here by Tyrell Crews. Talk about an iconic role – totemic actually! According to a poll done by the esteemed Orange Prize for fiction on what literary character most women would want to be romantically involved with, women across generations overwhelmingly chose Mr. Darcy. And during a quick Google search, I found no fewer than twelve fan-sites devoted to the character not to mention the countless web pages dedicated to the various men that have played the role. In other words, Crews had big shoes to fill. And he did so admirably. His own devastatingly good looks aside, Crews expertly affected the posture of a man who is dashing and knows it, yet dismisses it as beneath him to think about . This in combination with controlled emoting and very good timing clad him well in the Darcy swath and no doubt had more than a few ladies swooning in the audience. It was a shame then that Crew’s Darcy lacked a bit of bite due to an adaptation that seemed to take some of the initial callousness and unpleasantness out of his character. Instead, we get a Darcy that comes across as more antisocial and shy than priggish, making the transition to finally overcoming his pride and prejudice less dramatic. I believe Crews had the ability to take it up a notch, I would like to have seen Garnhum encourage him to do so.
In the end, I have to ask myself, did I really need to see another production of Pride and Prejudice? And while the answer is no, with so many excellent performances in this superbly executed production I am glad I saw this one. It’s a story that keeps winning our hearts again and again and sometimes that’s not a bad thing to look forward to in a night at the theatre.
For the guys – Yes this story is the ultimate chick flick. But it’s funny and clever and expertly acted and you’ll actually like Elizabeth, both as a character and as a woman. SEE IT
For the girls – Swooning over Darcy should be enough to get you to the theatre, but what will keep you there are the incredible performances and the beauty of the production. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – It’s timeless, funny, romantic and lavish. A total package. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – How many times have you seen this? Sure, it’s been done to death. But the joy of seeing an entire cast with this much talent and a production so flawlessly executed might be worth another look. SEE IT