Ladies in the 1800s should be: quiet, demurring, accomplished and wealthy (though with the fortune safely under the guardianship of an older brother, of course. Think of the bonnets which the family hundreds could be frittered away on). The Bennet sisters, however, don’t really fit this framework. For one, they lack a brother and, for another, they’re raucous, prone to squabbling and even singing about how hideously old a 36-year-old woman is.
Perhaps informed by her own experience growing up as one of three daughters, Pascoe gives the Austen classic a much-needed reality check when it comes to the experience of being a teenage girl with no real goals outside of marriage. Even the Bingley sisters are given a rejuvenation; alongside their snide comments and bitchy agenda comes that mean girl persona which is as chillingly accurate as it ever was in the school cafeteria. No character benefits more from this new version, however, than Mary. So often overlooked, she’s no longer the dowdy middle child but a master of the non-sequitur who has more time for musing over horses and ghosts than wondering which-man-with-what-fortune has moved next door. Newcomer Rachel Partington has a firm handle on her every quirk, and is an absolute joy to watch, especially when sniffing envelopes in a corner.
Mannequins are dotted around the balls that Lizzy et al attend, a quick nod to the still and lifeless adaptations of Austen that have come before (naming no names but definitely the 2005 film). Here’s a play that’s brimming with life: even the Bennets’ marriage is no longer the cautionary tale it once was. Instead, we see Mr and Mrs Bennet dancing together in an addition that grants a much-needed intimacy to their relationship.
That’s not to say the production takes a delicate or sympathetic approach. When we’re not sneering at how quickly Alice Haig’s Charlotte clambers the social ladder, we’re given insight into the show itself through the classroom, rehearsal space and editing floor. Viewing the story through the act of adaptation, and the process of adaptation through the production team (directors and technicians actively make their mark) allows for Pascoe to question much of the logic which even in Austen’s time felt dated. The analysis by bored schoolgirls might seem a bit on the nose at first, but via Kerry Peers’ director we see Mrs Bennet’s role as the dictator of her daughters’ lives and choices all the more clearly. To marry off her children is Mrs Bennet’s only outward accomplishment, so handling this three times over is more than enough of an occasion for her hilariously triumphant song at the play’s conclusion.
Emmy the Great’s composition provides musical interludes that lend bite to the Bennet songbirds (literally caged in Carla Goodman’s set design – a brilliant tongue in cheek look at the life of a woman in the 1800s that carries a sinister note when it remains the same once the sisters are married). We can’t judge them for acting the way they do: it’s only survival, and to hell with doing it the quiet and demurring way. This is a brilliantly loud and proud production that encourages the same in its audience (except for the women next to me who were not enjoying how much I was laughing – but hey, you’re always going to encounter a Bingley sister or two in your life).
Pride and Prejudice is on at the York Theatre Royal until 14 October 2017. Click here for more details.