On Jan. 28, Pride and Prejudice will turn 200 years old, but Jane Austen’s classic romance barely looks a day over 20. The book is as adored as much today as ever by its fans – woman, man and beast.
Yes, even the animal kingdom is not immune to the aloof appeal of Mr. Darcy. Just last week, a headline in that most trusted of British news sources, the Daily Mail, proclaimed: “My male orangutan is addicted to Jane Austen and reads up to 50 pages of Pride and Prejudice a day, claims zookeeper.”
Albert the ape’s enthusiasms apparently extend to Canadian theatregoers. After a sold-out run out west, Theatre Calgary artistic director Dennis Garnhum’s new stage production of P&P has now made its way to Ottawa and the National Arts Centre. Once again, the local primates are going wild.
Victoria-based playwright Janet Munsil’s solid if unexciting new adaptation is the stage equivalent of comfort food, keeping the familiar tale familiar. Indeed, for better or for worse, viewers will never entirely forget that they are watching a book. Patrick Clark’s off-white set – striking, if awkward – is made to look like a stack of paper, blowing in the wind.
Mr. Bennet (a loveable, long-limbed Allan Morgan), meanwhile, appears to also stand in for the novel’s never-named narrator. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” he says early on, pointing his index finger upwards, seemingly well aware that he is quoting a famous opening line.
Mr. Bennet’s trouble, of course, is that he is a country gentleman fallen on hard times, with five daughters in need of marrying off in Georgian England; the daughter we are chiefly interested is heroine Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest, here played by a strong and likeable Shannon Taylor, only occasionally lapsing into excessively strident shouting.
When wealthy gentleman Charles Bingley (the wonderfully affable Brendan McMurtry-Howlett) moves in next door, Elizabeth’s older sister Jane (Gemma James-Smith, lending a certain gentle quirkiness to a usually bland character ) looks to be sewn up.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, finds a sparring partner in Bingley’s moody friend, the even richer Mr. Darcy (the sad-eyed Tyrell Crews).
Before these matches can make it to the altar, however, class complications and a handsome militiaman named George Wickham (a seductive and pleasingly subtle Karl H. Wine) intervene – for a year or so, anyway.
Garnhum’s production is for the whole family – the Bennet babes bathe fully clothed, in one scene – and deftly takes its audience through the novel’s main plot points in a little over two hours; its four young leads are fine and you root for their respective romances.
But the show disappoints in its inelegant conjuring of class. Mrs. Bennet, for instance, is initially mistaken for a washerwoman in Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan’s galumphing performance. “Chop chop!” she says bossily and anachronistically, bringing to mind the cook on Downton Abbey.
In fact, it’s not only signifiers of class, but accents and acting styles that vary wildly among the cast. Though a significant majority of the performers are making their debut in Ottawa, Pride and Prejudice is advertised as “featuring the NAC English Theatre Company.” Peter Hinton, the now-departed artistic director of the NAC, re-established this company of actors during his tenure; perhaps his successor Jillian Keiley will succeed in making it actually seem like one.