PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (SORT OF)
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Until July 14
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Various dates until October 10
Reviewed by Mark Brown
An ironic, all-female, 21st-century deconstruction of Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Isobel McArthur’s Pride And Prejudice (Sort Of) sounds like the kind of show one would expect to find on the Edinburgh Fringe in August. However, rather than being the quick-witted, fleet-footed hour of theatre its concept might suggest, director Paul Brotherston’s Tron Theatre production is a full-scale production which runs to two hours and 45 minutes.
McArthur’s central idea, that the sexual and class relations of Regency England exposed by Austen (and, by logical extension, the iniquities of our own supposedly more enlightened times) are ripe for feminist satire, is a perfectly good one. Unfortunately, the means she has chosen are far from path-breaking.
The piece straddles the early 19th century and early 21st with a far-from-subtle, knowing irony. Period dress is juxtaposed with modern props. The parlance of today crashes into the Regency drawing room (not least when Meghan Tyler’s Elizabeth Bennett tells Tori Burgess’s embarrassing clergyman Mister Collins to “f*** off”).
The show is peppered with modern pop songs, more often than not in the context of Austen’s characters standing on a plastic beer crate, in front of flashing disco lights and singing along to a karaoke machine. The Shirelles’ 1960 hit Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow and Sony and Cher’s chart-topper I Got You Babe (from 1965) are among the tracks inserted meaningfully into McArthur’s adaptation.
Like the comment by Tyler’s sharp-witted Elizabeth that “love’s irrelevant, we’re talking about marriage”, the musical playlist is carefully selected to take a tongue-in-cheek swipe at misogynistic gender relations. It isn’t just the male characters (the inveigling Charles Bingley, the misunderstood Fitzwilliam Darcy) who are sent up, there are stern characterisations for the women who put themselves at the service of patriarchy and snobbery.
Lady Catherine do Bourgh (here, inevitably, aunt of “composer” Chris de Burgh) is, as performed by Christina Gordon, a bigoted monster of epic proportions. McArthur herself plays Mrs Bennett (and Darcy besides), casting the desperate matriarch as both victim and perpetrator in a social system that demands that young women subjugate their talents to the exigencies of a marital cattle market.
It’s impossible to disagree with the politics of all this. However, good politics doesn’t necessarily make for good theatre.
The postmodern devices employed here are narrow in their aesthetic scope, timeworn and predictable. There is something frustratingly unedifying about seeing such tropes repeated endlessly throughout almost three hours of theatre.
There’s frustration, too, in the unevenness of the comedy. There are some genuinely lovely comic moments, such as a life-size, plastic horse (called Willy) being wheeled on-stage for Jane Bennett’s journey to the Bingley household.
However, not even the show’s knowing irony can justify its stream of innuendos (from the “huge” size of Darcy’s library to Jane being told to “go outside and mount Willy”).
The piece is performed with skill, energy and observable camaraderie by the impressive, five-strong cast. It’s just a pity that it is so short on originality and too long by almost two hours.
There’s a very different treatment of history in Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties. Set, through the dubious memory of British diplomat Henry Carr, in Zurich during the First World War, the drama revels in a period when the Swiss city was at the heart of revolutionary events in European politics and culture.
Thanks to Switzerland’s legendary neutrality, wartime Zurich was awash, not only with embezzlers and spies, but also artists and political radicals. The great modernist novelist James Joyce made his home in the city, as did Tristan Tzara (founder of the Dadaist art movement) and Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin.
All three, Joyce, Tzara and Lenin, appear in a play which is topped and tailed by the senile, somewhat verbose recollections of Carr (played with a perfect self-regard and bitterness by Mark Elstob). There is more than a little reference to a production of Oscar Wilde’s great comedy The Importance Of Being Earnest, in which the real Carr did perform in Zurich, and after which the diplomat did fall out with the real Joyce, who was the real business manager on the Wilde production.
A Wildean dimension, and a Wildean wit, are introduced to the play, as are the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily (both borrowed from Wilde’s comedy and played with great humour by Camrie Palmer and Lucie-Mae Sumner). In true modernist style, we are duly warned that the play’s depictions of events in Zurich fall very firmly into the category of unreliable evidence.
All of which adds to the fun of a piece in which Joyce (played with neat comedy by Alex Scott Fairley) turns into a Celtic-dancing leprechaun of a man and Tzara (the mercurial Graham Mackay-Bruce) arrives at Carr’s house carrying a urinal identical to the one that Marcel Duchamp “created” as an art work in 1917. Meanwhile Lenin (a transformed and implacable Alan Steele) is busily analysing imperialism, plotting insurrection and inspiring the local librarian to throw off the shackles of capitalism.
Playing cleverly with form (the play is laced with modernist repetitions and variations) and drawing upon the lives of fascinating people at a fascinating time, Travesties is, despite its moments of comedy, a drama more of the mind than of the emotions. Director Richard Baron is keenly attuned to both its creative aesthetics and its cerebral discourse, and has created a production which does justice to a much-loved, early Stoppard.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 8, 2018
© Mark Brown