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Just when you think you can’t stomach yet another silly dance in Sue Pomeroy’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice at Greenwich Theatre, she inserts a sort of sex dream ballet, in which Elizabeth Bennett appears to accidentally bump into part of Mr Wickham’s anatomy. This surprising and unintentionally ludicrous incongruity in an otherwise resolutely non-innovative production is the adaptor’s desperate way of trying to convey the inner life of a literary character on stage. Assaulted by a series of clumsily choreographed scenes and arch characterisations, I had already been musing that if the novel has to be turned into anything else at all, a ballet of Pride and Prejudice would be preferable to a play, the most refined of the performing arts being better suited to revealing Jane Austen’s subtle patterns of sexual and social politics and finding the elusive balance between elegance and naturalism of expression which characterizes her work.
“What is the good of the arts if they are interchangeable” asks Margaret Schlegel in Forster’s novel, Howard’s End, opening a discussion about “the muddling of the arts” which is even more prevalent today. We are inundated with images intended to make our grasp of an idea sound easier, and with words describing pictures we can already see. Changing books into plays or movies is a staple of the entertainment industry. It’s acknowledged that the better the book, the worse the film, or play; the worse the book, the better the film, or play. These three are essentially different forms, each with exclusive demands on practitioners. Adaptors of literature for the stage are obstinately slower to recognize that there’s more needed than transposing plot and character and reproducing dialogue. With a writer of such delicate distinctions of mood and tone as Jane Austen, the most successful interchanges have usually been the ones that adapt her moral debates, social satire and character studies from her own period to contemporary societies.
The movie Clueless, for example, a satire of affluent modern Los Angeles youth, is, at source, a very funny, perceptive and romantically touching version ofEmma, proving Austen’s claims to being classic far more than more literal adaptations have done. Transporting Elizabeth and Darcy to Bollywood in a fun tribute to the original story pre-empts unfavourable comparisons. Playful modern equivalents to Austen are preferable to travesties masquerading as that most treacherous of literary forms, the faithful adaptation. Capturing her famous irony seems beyond the reach of directors, who encourage actors to over colour the phrases, instead of pointing them naturalistically. She is a social satirist, not caricaturist. The polite formality of her characters in their own early 19th century idiom too often translates into twee outpourings in modern mouths. When they are being malicious or downright rude, they are unnaturally over-emphatic, instead of sounding like any bitchy society woman of today. The serious introspection of her heroines on their journeys of self-discovery is not readily transported to the stage. Too often, actors and directors end up patronizing the characters, emptying them of depth of feeling and sincerity leaving us to watch a faded fancy dress parade. It’s a perverse idea that there is a natural law that a novel should mutate into a play without intervention from someone with their own playwriting skills.
Sue Pomeroy does not attempt a radical adaptation and the production, which she directs, generally and tastelessly hams Austen up. The production veers from vulgar to dull. The fairytale quality of the romance between the charismatic characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, and the possibilities for a drawing-room comedy set, makes Pride and Prejudice the most tempting of Austen’s novels to adapt. Bereft of her ironic authorial voice and truthful portrayal of character, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s Bright and Sparkling Battle of the Sexes is a tedious saga of shrieking décolletages and simpering caricatures, conspicuously short of comedic and sexual sparks. Pomeroy evidently respects the book and appreciates the underlying themes. She takes care to emphasise the symbolic importance of Pemberley, its house and woods present throughout as a backcloth, thereby giving us a glimpse of the natural world beyond the drawing and ball rooms.
These conscientious efforts do not compensate for the sagging structure, dragging its chain of increasingly silly dances to link scenes where the sexes meet, which give the impression of idle people living in boundless and irritating frivolity; the lack of detailed psychological interaction and atmosphere; the promotion of Mrs Bennett as the key character and the incredible relegation of Mr Darcy, abetted by a dull and lisping performance in a part demanding compelling stage presence and sex appeal. She directs all the action out-front, discourages intimacy, and imposes an irritatingly arch house-style on all the actors, putting even the more talented ones among them at a disadvantage. Everybody ends up smirking. They remain shallow and on the whole one-dimensional.
While the sexual and psychological angles of the Darcy-Elizabeth-Wickham triangle are barely visible, except in the bizarre mime, there are other lost dramatic opportunities, such as Elizabeth’s brief musing on the appearance of goodness in Wickham, and its real presence in Darcy, against appearances. We never see this demonstrated in dialogue or personality. Left with few options to resolve an adaptor’s dilemma of how to convey the contents of Darcy’s self-explanatory letter, Sue Pomeroy invents an awkward meeting between him and Elizabeth. Nolan Hemmings has to stomp about in Byronic mode, neck-tie in disarray, totally inauthentic behaviour in Mr Darcy in his Regency gentleman incarnation. It makes nonsense of his essentially proud and reserved nature. Yet again, an attempt at a period reconstruction comes unstuck. As it is, the confrontation is dramatically unconvincing, because Elizabeth’s reaction to his words is not affected by his actual physical presence and evident distress. Her moment of self-knowledge is sweetly done by Emma Campbell-Jones, but the full psychological impact never realised. The cost to her should be so much greater. Darcy and Elizabeth both grow in the book, but this play doesn’t take up the offer of dramatising anybody’s character development.
The opening sentence of the novel, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” is done to death, repeated by five different characters, out-front, as a knowing aside to the audience, but the very pressing financial and social reasons for women to marry are belittled in the production. In the production, Charlotte is smug and inevitably smirking when she tells Lizzy that she will be marrying Mr Collins, boasting, as if she’s competing with her friend for male attention, when in the book, she is only being practical, expecting no more of marriage than a comfortable home, even with a man she can not truly esteem. Of course Mrs Bennett is desperate to marry off as many of her five daughters as possible, not just for snobbish, gossipy reasons, but to ensure they are provided for after their father’s death. Silly and socially embarrassing as she is, she is being realistic about their futures; instead, this performance follows the trend set on TV for a monstrous Mrs Bennett.
Sue Pomeroy has chosen to cast very young and inexperienced actresses in the technically demanding parts of the sisters. Elizabeth Bennett is the most delightful heroine in English literature on the page, and almost impossibly challenging to play; her “archness”, a devalued word in our own time, too often fatally translates into modern manners as manipulative simpering. Emma Campbell-Jones is able to show she has a sweet and gentle presence, invaluable to period parts, but is not given directorial guidance to avoid making Lizzy’s playfulness seem more conceited than engaging. She’s wrong about Darcy, certainly, but right about everybody else. Elizabeth demands a special natural vitality and wit in performance. As a stage type, she’s in the great tradition of romantic high comedy, having as much in common with Rosalind as with the 18th century comedy. The independence of spirit, which arouses Miss Bingley’s resentment, (“almost wild”), and gives Elizabeth her recognizably modern appeal, is, conversely, difficult for contemporary productions to bring off in a period context. She mustn’t appear too modern, or she’ll be anachronistic. She ends up, as in this case, being yet another coy girl in a pretty, period frock. This is not the actress’s fault: she’d make a charming and convincing Jane Bennett, which, in its own way is a difficult part. She is not helped by the dullness of the actors playing Darcy and Wickham, eliminating any chance of sexual rapport. One sorely misses the grandeur and magnanimity of Mr Darcy, who comes over as no more than rather nice, very stupid and deadly dull.
Instead of Elizabeth and Darcy’s personalities dominating, undue stage time is given to Mr and Mrs Bennett, misconceived to varying degrees by Sylvester McCoy and Rula Lenska. There’s evidently a misplaced hope they will be the mainsprings of comedy. While he over-simplifies Mr Bennett as a bumbler rather than an ironic humorist, she is grossly vulgar and fundamentally miscast — again the responsibility of the director. Rula Lenska’s strident and rather adamant stage personality is at odds with Mrs Bennett’s nervous disposition and gushing femininity. She performs with energy and gusto, but doesn’t bring the necessary light touch to bring out the inherent comedy of the lines. She is made to look as if she belongs to a pantomime, badly dressed and in a solid red wig which would have aroused comment in Netherfield, and has to do a lot of coarse mugging.
Ben Roddy characterizes the physical grotesqueness of Mr Collins’ obsequiousness but the direction over-exploits the opportunity for pantomimic clowning around in the overlong dance sequences. The attempts to make Austen fun all lapse into tastelessness. There are moments of bathos, too, as actors rush to the piano or seize a clarinet, allowing several of them to display their virtuosity. But it’s superfluous: as with the excess of dances, we’ve already got the point that people made their own entertainment in 1813. Actors and crew endlessly bring on a selection of chairs, benches, tables, and loveseats; an on-stage couch has to be moved into different positions, elaborately spun round, as if it’s featuring in an antique furniture show. It all contributes to a general impression of silliness.
The younger male actors suffer from being made to smirk in their breeches as part of a jolly costume romp. Despite direction, one suspects, Katarina Olsson manages to preserve her talent, which emerges in three versatile portrayals, but she’d be even better if she wasn’t undermined by the shrill and exaggerated style of the production. She is particularly striking as the rude and haughty Lady Catherine de Burgh, realized as a stylized 18th century relic. Predictably, Pomeroy as director can’t resist making her into a slightly pantomimic figure.
Some of the casting is cynically commercial, signified by the presence of a non-actor as Mr Wickham on the grounds of his real-life sexual notoriety. John Leslie ends up not being entirely ineffective. His imposing height gives him a natural advantage on stage. Though he’s stiff and can’t act in the sense of interacting with colleagues, characterising, expressing hidden depths or winning laughs, the general style of the production, presenting everything out front, is entirely suited to him. The supple, deceitful charm of Wickham is beyond him, but he’s affable, and conveys a brutishness in the confrontation with Darcy that gives some much-needed theatrical tension. It’s a sad indictment of this misconceived production that Wickham is a stronger personality than Darcy.
C J Sheridan © 2004
Originally published on R&V 20-10-04
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