Saturday, December 14, 2013

Playing Elizabeth Bennet

The Gate Theatre are currently showing Pride and Prejudice so, as it's one of my favourite books, I went along with a couple of (female) friends.  The female part bears emphasis, because the entire theatre was filled with women - what few men there were spread out among the masses looked vaguely uncomfortable.  This surprised me...I had not thought much about the audience, and I hadn't particularly figured it would be so heavily weighted towards women, considering The Gate is a well-frequented theatre showing a variety of plays.  However the attractions of Jane Austen would seem to be a female pursuit, no matter how many years pass: she still can't attract the varied audience a male writer might, despite an academic renewal of interest in her novels.  Men, it would seem, still don't consider our Jane a 'proper' author.  And unfortunately, when her novel is reduced, as it was in this instance, to a pure romance, this problem is only exacerbated.

Pride and Prejudice is a very, very beloved novel that many women will have a personal relationship with - mainly due, it must be said, to its protagonists, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.  So, the actors playing these two roles must invest a lot of time and energy into their portrayal - other characters in the novel are comparatively easy because of how quickly they lend themselves to comedy and hyperbole.  Mrs. Bennet's nervous fits, Mr. Bennet's sarcastic wit, Lady Catherine De Bourgh's snobbery and arrogance, Mr. Collins' grovelling idiocy - the list of 'easy' characters encompasses practically everyone but Eliza and Mr. Darcy.  And so it was with a certain wariness that I sat down to watch a new set of actors take on this iconic meeting of hearts and minds.  Very quickly I was dissatisfied with both the adaptation and my favourite characters' portrayal: Elizabeth was too silly, too romantic and much too dull; Darcy was vapid and uninteresting, looking constipated when he should look aloof; the adaptation had taken all of the comedy and none of the tragedy, making Pride and Prejudice a trite rom-com.  While that sounds like I didn't enjoy the play, I have to say now that I did in so many was just not good enough to match up to my own personal relationship with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

Because that is the issue here...Elizabeth was the first protagonist in a 'romantic' situation (because romance is, of course, a massive element of Austen's work) with whom I had ever identified.  She spoke when she should be silent, she argued when she should agree, she couldn't apply herself to learning new skills properly because she got distracted and moved on to other hobbies half-way through, she bore grudges and formed bad opinions on characters, she was strong, she had a checkered relationship with her sisters, she was caring and above all else, she was smart.  Elizabeth was a breath of fresh air in the tightly wound world Austen created - she showed that even when everything might seem against your being a strong and independent woman, a way could be found to give yourself a voice.  And Mr. Darcy was the only man who could possibly be good enough for Elizabeth, but only after he had proven himself to deserve her - his character needed help from her wit, her censure, her dislike and her love.  They were as equal a pairing as Austen could write, and nothing gave me greater hope than Darcy describing his perfect woman as one who sought to "improve her mind by extensive reading".  Elizabeth is, and always has been, far too much a personal companion for me to ever see her onstage with anything less than a perfect characterisation.

The changes to the novel in order to show it onstage were, I'm sure, necessary to accommodate the very different needs of the theatre over reading a novel.  However, there were certain things I didn't like - perhaps most particularly Elizabeth's pseudo-line to her father about Darcy; 'Indeed, he is not proud.  It is I who am proud of him'....something practical and honest Elizabeth would not have said.  Changing Darcy's discovering Eliza on her receiving news of Lydia's elopement to it being Bingley and Darcy both addressing Jane and Elizabeth was another great problem.  Jane and Bingley having the emotionally charged conversation about Lydia's fall from grace was totally unsuitable, as the undertones of the original conversation were always Eliza and Darcy's burgeoning love fighting the shame of being associated with Wickham.  An omission which I cannot understand was the entire scene at Pemberley...there was no Georgiana Darcy onstage, but still - such an important few days in the shift of Elizabeth and Darcy's feelings for each other, with him scrabbling to prove he has taken her criticisms onboard.  It felt very wrong not to include it, yet to focus so heavily on the comedy of Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins...those scenes extended for the gratification of an imaginary audience who just want laughs when they go to see Jane Austen onstage.

The ending, too, focused heavily on the romance, with an added-on scene that lacked the power the novel had to show a relationship that was not merely a meeting of hearts, but a meeting of minds and of outlook.  The book finished with comments on their marriage, showing Elizabeth's spirits were not dampened by entering the institution...indeed, one of my favourite final sections mentions how Elizabeth taught Georgiana that she didn't need to be so cowed by her brother and, by Elizabeth's behaviour to Darcy, "she began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself."  Beautiful!  Elizabeth remains the strong woman she always had been - not, as the play would have it, solely delighted with the idea that Darcy loves her.  To reduce Elizabeth's search for companionship to a rom-com was, I'll admit, a bit depressing.  Darcy was left in the background an underdeveloped character, just trotted out to fulfill Elizabeth's romantic conquest, and Elizabeth herself was a simpering giggler.

It's hard to mention Pride and Prejudice without talking about the BBC adaptation - because, let's face it, it was practically perfect in every way.  And again, I think the reason for this is the choice of actors who played Elizabeth and Darcy - though the entire thing was excellently cast.  Here we were given our two strong and implacable unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, and we get to watch them both slowly give way to each other.  That was what was missing, essentially, in The Gate's production.  Without a strong, passionate and believable Elizabeth and Darcy, Pride and Prejudice will always be, ultimately, reduced to a banal romantic comedy.

A rare disappointment from The Gate, and one that is particularly galling to me because of Elizabeth and Darcy - two of the greatest and most beloved characters in fiction - and for the lack of social commentary that Austen's work overflowed with.  It also appears to me to be a particularly gendered disappointment - the audience of women were presumed to want funny characters and pure romance, instead of giving women the credit that they might actually wish to see Pride and Prejudice in all of its complicated glory.  To take the intelligence and cutting societal incisiveness from the novel takes away much of the heart, and most of the meaning.