Pride and Prejudice is probably one of the best known English novels, making any kind of adaptation a challenge. Not only is the audience bound to know the novel back-to-front, but chances are they also know and love the now iconic 1995 BBC version. It seems to me that the BBC dramatised the novel so effectively and with such strong characterisation that it is hard for any more recent adaptation not to seem like an ‘acting out’ of that version.
This adaptation for theatre, by Simon Reade, feels like a cut-down version of the BBC script; this of course means that it is close to the novel, but also that it lacks originality. I felt that the humorous lines suffered from over-anticipation; the audience were laughing before the punch-line. The script tells the story effectively enough, but will not encourage reinterpretation of the novel, nor will it remind you of bits you’d forgotten. It is a shame that Wickham’s role has been reduced so drastically; of course the story has to be telescoped, but it was hard to believe Lizzie had any feelings for him after seeing them together for only a minute.
The tendency to imitate the BBC version also held back certain individual performances. Alison Steadman played the role of Mrs Bennett with such memorable intonation and pace that it is hard not to fall into imitation of her delivery of certain lines. Having said this, Susan Hampshire plays the role with aplomb, even if she brings nothing new to the character.
The strongest performance by far was given by Katie Lightfoot, as Elizabeth. She captures the character perfectly, while making it very much her own. She manages to convey the subtle changes of her relationship with Darcy, even when the story has been condensed considerably. Violet Ryder also offers a sensitive performance as Jane.
The staging is deliberately minimalist, in order to allow for a swift romp through the scenes. At times this is very effective and creative, but at others you feel that a great potential for lavish staging has been wasted, and you wish for just a little more for your money! Improvements could also be made to the lighting in future performances, as the actors’ faces were cast in shadow at key moments.
When trees are represented by actors wearing hats designed to look like topiary, you cannot help but wonder quite how the performance sees itself. It becomes dangerously close to a parody of the novel, particularly when the Lydia situation is resolved as quickly as it arises. The novel does of course include satirical characters, but this aspect can be stretched to the point of pantomime, particularly in the case of Mr. Collins and Kitty.
This production does what you would expect: it theatricalises a great novel. I am not convinced this is a good thing. Nevertheless, it is enjoyable to watch with some very accomplished performances. If it is taken as almost tongue-in-cheek, you can laugh along with it. This is good fun, and - if nothing else - will remind you of the novel and of past, more original, adaptations.