Review: PRIDE & PREJUDICE (sort of)

by Lynn on December 20, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge St. Toronto, Ont. David Mirvish presents in association with James Seabright and Joshua Beaumont the David Pugh production. Plays until Jan. 21, 2024.

www.mirvish.com

Written by Isabel McArthur (after Jane Austen)

Directed by Isabel McArthur and Simon Harvey

Comedy director, Jos Houben

Designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita

Lighting by Colin Grenfell

Musical supervisor, Michael John McCarthy

Choreographer, Emily Jane Boyle

Sound designers, Michael John McCarthy and Naimh Gaffney for Autograph

Cast: Ruth Brotherton

Christina Gordon

Lucy Gray

Dannie Harris

Leah Jamieson

Brilliant, cheeky, irreverent, bristling with witty humour and the brains and talent to reference Jane Austen’s 1813 classic novel of manners and apply it to 2023.

The Story. The story is set in the 19th century in England and all that entails for a family of five daughters. It follows Elizabeth Bennet and her family: her talkative, social climbing mother, Mrs. Bennet, her silent, newspaper-reading father, Mr. Bennet and her four sisters, Jane, Lydia, Mary and Kitty as they navigate the social mores of the times.

While Mr. Bennet has property in Hertfordshire it’s entailed which means it can only be passed down to a male heir or a male chosen to inherit. The daughters cannot inherit their father’s estate unless they marry. So, Mrs. Bennet is busy trying to arrange this.

The title refers to Elizabeth’s feelings about Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (or just Darcy for our purposes). To Elizabeth, Darcy is an arrogant, prideful man who looks down on her family because they are ‘poor’ and have a lower social standing than he does. She in turn is prejudiced against him for his arrogance and for what she has heard about him. Both soften when they actually get to know each other. The rest of the story is a complex maneuvering of class, social order, set rules about conduct and status, finding the perfect mate and if they are lucky, love as well.   

The Production. Designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita has created a wide, sweeping banistered staircase, with a ‘bridge’ that crosses over the upper part of the stage. That staircase says everything about the elegance and size of that house. There are various doors for surprise entrances and exists. Furniture rolls on and off with ease.

Five maids ‘a’ cleaning appear on the stage as the audience files in. They are all dressed in white long ‘work’ dresses and black ‘work boots.’ Some of the maids come into the audience and polish the armrests of the seats in the theatre. Others use long-poled dusters to reach the upper areas of the set. One wears yellow rubber gloves and holds a plunger to go off and clean the toilet(s).  When she returns, she is disheveled and holds a filthy plunger with brown-stained gloves. Brilliant. These are hardworking women who often work in filth, know all the secrets of that household and are aware of the restricted world in which they live.

In short, irreverent order the five maids tell the story, sort of, of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice” playing all the parts, including the men. They also establish the rules of inheritance, engagement and social mores of the time at the top of the production. Sidelong glances at the audience underscore points deemed ironic to today’s audiences.

Is it necessary to have read Jane Austen’s classic to be up on the story? Nope. Playwright Isabel McArthur has written a smart, laugh-out-loud funny, irreverent, pointed play that tells the story and references our modern world. The five gifted actors playing the maids and everybody else keep you up to speed. If you have read the book then you will be familiar with its first line and understand the irony dripping from it and smile knowingly:  

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

The reality is that women at the time needed to marry (and marry ‘well’) to ensure social status, class, income and inheritance, just to name a few. As some of the maids tell the story others go off to get into a simple costume over their work dress to play a character. The changes from maid to character and back to maid are done smoothly, efficiently and swiftly by the cast under the careful, inventive eyes of directors Isobel McArthur and Simon Harvey. Character changes seem like sleight of hand, they are so beautifully achieved. As one maid goes off in one direction, another character appears from somewhere else and yet another is created by the maid we saw going off originally. The comings and goings of maids to transform into other characters is beautifully achieved and exquisite in their economy.

For example, Dannie Harris in a frilly frock plays Mrs. Bennet as flighty, dithery and fussy. In a blink Dannie Harris exits as Mrs. Bennet only to appear at the top of the cross over, now dressed in a frock coat, sucked in cheeks and haughty air as Mr. Darcy. As flighty and animated as Mrs. Bennet is, Mr. Darcy is still, watchful and condescending just with a look. Both are perfectly achieved by Dannie Harris. And she isn’t alone in that wonderful achievement. Ruth Brotherton flits from innocuous maid to the feisty, poised Elizabeth Bennet who thinks she has the measure of Mr. Darcy. Leah Jamieson plays Mary Bennet with large glasses and a studious air about her playing up Mary’s plainness. Just as quickly Leah Jamieson becomes the dull, double-chinned clergyman, Mr. Collins. Christine Gordon plays (among others) Jane Bennet, kind, considerate, demure and in love with Charles Bingley. Lucy Gray gives an ache of a performance as Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s friend. With just a look of longing at Elizabeth, we get the clear sense that Charlotte loves Elizabeth  more than just friendship, but it’s a love that would not be tolerated then. Charlotte does what she must to protect herself from being a spinster—she marries the boring Collins when Elizabeth refuses him, so you ache for Charlotte twice. There is such economy of acting and communication in telling the story and more important, establishing the depth of characters in this production, it’s breathtaking.

The five maids comment on the goings on with wit, irreverence and impish humour and suffuse it with a modern feminism. It’s flippant and yet there is an edge.   

Comment. Pride & Prejudice (sort of) is one of the wittiest, sharpest, beautifully written and crafted productions to play here in a long time. It’s a glorious accomplishment.

David Mirvish presents in association with James Seabright and Joshua Beaumont the David Pugh production.

Plays until Jan. 21, 2024.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx. (1 intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 AustenFan December 21, 2023 at 10:04 am

Hi Lynn, I love your blog. This production of Pride and Prejudice is going on a world tour (according to notes I read on Mirvish). Great timing because Jane Austens 250th anniversary (of her birth) is coming up in December 2025. A lot of Austen fans are excited for it. Keep up the great blogging

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2 Sal December 22, 2023 at 2:44 pm

Minor clarification: “The daughters cannot inherit their father’s estate unless they marry” isn’t quite accurate. Mr Collins inherits Longbourn. The daughters won’t inherit Longbourn by marrying just anyone, it would have to be Mr Collins. But Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy are rich enough that one could marry them without worrying about Longbourn or the entail.

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