Laura Denton, Iona Holmes, Rivka Cocker give their unique perspectives on the Old Vic’s twist on Jane Austen’s literary classic.
There are two camps of Austenites: the ‘historically-accurate obsessives’ who argue about the particular cut of empire lines used, and the ‘wet-shirt-swooners’, who delight in her timeless stories being brought bang up to date with Clueless or the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. If you’re in the latter camp, this is the best play you’ll ever see.
Pride and Prejudice suffers from a surplus of sisters, resulting in one or more of the Bennet girls being excluded altogether in many adaptations of this classic novel. In this production, all five sisters appear as the fullest versions of themselves. The sassy Lizzie was a natural audience favourite, while pitch-perfect Jane seemed too sweet for the world. Lydia was a horror; petulant and promiscuous. She was vicious to Kitty, but most sympathy was reserved for Mary who finally got her moment in the spotlight during the finale. It was refreshing to hear a diversity of accents after so many televised Austen novels have featured dodgy posh English tones – I’m looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow.
Some of the comic details were lost in the enormity of the Old Vic, from the servants dropping a platter of Mini Rolls, to Jane and Lizzie eating Frosties out of the box. Despite this, the shrieks of laughter from the audience were endless. Only one jape seemed to go over the heads of the overwhelmingly Southern middle-class audience – I guffawed at the presentation of Vienetta as a secret weapon of seduction, but clearly, I was the only one watching with a grandmother who genuinely thinks piped ice cream by the slice is exotic.
A Rubik’s Cube, dabbing and maracas – three things I would never have expected from a Jane Austen adaptation. There was clearly a reason for the ‘sort of’ in the title of this feisty take on the classic.
Taking my seat in the refurbished Old Vic, I was immediately struck by the elaborate set, complete with a decadent staircase and twinkling chandeliers. An all-women cast, dressed in flowing white dresses and black Doc Martens, started sweeping the stage while the audience was still murmuring. Once the crowd settled, they introduced themselves as forgotten maids. As they explain, these characters tend to remain nameless but are often the crucial messengers propelling stories forward. In their own words: ‘You can’t have a whirlwind romance without clean bedding!’. This refreshing perspective acted as a warm reminder that we all contribute to the bigger picture, irrespective of the status society ascribes to us. The six actors proceeded to take on several characters each, dynamically switching between them with accent and accessory changes. However, in a satisfying reversal of gender norms, Mr Bennet was reduced to a silent armchair.
Throughout the performance, the energy exuded from the stage was contagious. The wit, sass and spirit of the girls – from the cringe-worthy awkwardness of Mary to the boldness of Lizzie – captured my attention in ways the book failed to when I read it as a young teen. The strength and solidarity of women friendships and sisterhood shone through, while well-timed musical interludes and kitsch touches added to the charm. For a story about a mother desperate to marry off her daughters, this was an undoubtedly feminist production accessible to all.
Until this month, I had never engaged with the story of Pride and Prejudice or sat in the ornate auditorium of The Bristol Old Vic Theatre. It was an evening of firsts! I was enticed by the all-women cast and modern take of the play. Disco lights, karaoke and multi-generational music made the performance accessible to a wider audience who probably never thought they’d hear a Carly Simon song embedded into a classic Georgian tale.
Modernising the story of the Bennet sisters highlighted key issues that women and girls (predominantly) are still subject to today: the manipulative and predatory male species. Unwanted male attention and the heteronormative concept of ‘happily-ever-after’ were repeatedly mocked by six actors who played multiple characters and genders. It was refreshing and highly satisfying to watch women imitate the behaviour of entitled men through their body language on stage. The flamboyant frilly costumes and quick character changes also enhanced this performance and the futility of gender norms.
A part that stood out to me was watching ‘best friends’ Charlotte and Lizzie (chatting over a toilet cubicle) bond over the need for honest relationships and the restraints of marrying men. Later, when Charlotte marries slimy and dull Collins, we see her ignore her feelings for Lizzie, compromising her happiness and suppressing her sexuality. Although Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) did well at incorporating modern feminist twists into the narrative, I would love to watch a story which no longer relies on marrying men, so that all characters can live their best lives, be gender-fluid, openly gay and self-sufficient.
Artwork by Rivka Cocker.