Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) – Royal Lyceum Theatre

Written by Isobel McArthur after Jane Austen

Directed by Paul Brotherston

Ignore everything you may have thought you knew about Jane Austen’s literary classic Pride & Prejudice; Isobel McArthur is about to change your entire perception. It takes a vision to reinvigorate a text, especially one with as countless adaptations, stiffness and dust that Pride & Prejudice conjure to a general audience, but Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) brings a freshness to the crumpled pages.

Every story is made up of the background lives upon which is builds a foundation. Sometimes, these backdrop characters form mere scenery, other times the stories wouldn’t cope without them – as can you truly have romance without clean linen? McArthur’s loving retelling of the Bennet sisters lives, and their Mother’s resolution to secure their future is told by six women, all of whom are the cleaners, bedmaids and keepers of the family home. For who has a better impression of what is going on upstairs, but those downstairs?

Taking on the mantle of adapting Austen’s piece for comedy is a feat taken on by many, with few succeeding. Lizzie Bennet has found herself an online vlogger, fighting zombies and on more than one occasion, no longer human. To not only infuse rich, distinctly West Coast humour, with a bubbling blend of gutter sniping insults, a wit beyond measure but perform the roles of Mrs Bennet and Colin Firth Mr Darcy too, well no bloody wonder Isobel McArthur looks proud at the standing ovation the production deserved.

Bo-Jo has arrived, and this might be the one time the buffooning Etonesque ‘charm’ has appeal, and if that doesn’t sell Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s performance of Charles Bingley then evidently recognising brilliance is a difficulty of yours. Manifesting four distinctly unique characters, with a tremendous helping of hot air, Jarrett-Scott finds a balance in excessive physicality, but still retains an emotional connection; particularly with Charlotte Lucas. Far from alone, equality exists between the six women’s role, with Tori Burgess bringing as much effervescent energy as Jarret-Scott.

This good ole’-fashioned stance of feminist storytelling finds comfort in its resolute cast of talents, who are living for their respective parts. As evident as the parody may be, the care in Austen’s text is equally clear – Meghan Tyler, evokes a brassier Elizabeth Bennet, but no less human. If you had any wonder if the writer of Crocodile Fever’s performance capability could match her written, from the outset Tyler’s characterisation makes it unambiguous how nimble her skill is in producing a character and shaking the audience’s pockets for every last dribble of laughter.

And that’s precisely what this is; fun. A collect of gags and laughs, Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is merriment at its hungover messy best. Finding a balance in larger than life chaos, with a ripple of dramatic integrity – there’s a delicate keel which tips in the smallest of ways. Pacing slackens towards the Act 1 climax, where a false ending of sorts crescendos in bombastic energy, to make way for a quick, narrative scene which drops momentum, even if it does close with a banging song choice. 

Thing is, what sort of party would this be without music? We’ve got finger foods, drama and wine – so surely the tunes must follow? A convoluted mixture of karaoke hits on shuffle, Michael John McCarthy’s legendary sound design and musical supervision achieve the lacing of pop classics with period literature without irking. It’s a release of sorts, the way only music can achieve; that just as the volatile nature of a scene grows, the only possible emotional release is to belt it all out – a task Christina Gordon’s Jane relishes.

If you’re having a peculiar sense of déjà vu, designer Ana Inés Jabares – Pita’s previous Lyceum production Twelfth Night seems to have been the benchmark for McArthur’s production. Paul Brotherston directs the space well, utilising the limitations of the venue, becoming remarkably inventive on occasion, enabling the six to showcase Emily Jane Boyle’s choreography, which sways from a movement-based to a more comical farce.

Now, despite what your English teacher may have once notified you; you’re allowed to dislike Pride & Prejudice or Austen. In particular, a fault not with the novel, but the exclusivity and absurd purity fans of the Period genre adhere to. In truth, the story is a paradigm of romantic comedy, a wonderful example of the genre and the disservice many adaptations do to the ‘image’ of Austen’s work. Isobel McArthur, on the other hand, has a canny ability to isolate an issue of class and place the servants in the storytellers armchair.

McArthur tears up the novel and lovingly binds the pages back together with chewing gum, plasters and a few choice vino stains. There is tremendous respect in the art of parody, even if they do pick apart the narrative issues, heavyhandedly highlighting how far (if at all) we have come from ‘antiquated’ beliefs. Invigorating a precious text, unafraid to let its mascara run while slapping on rose-tinted specs, and infusing it with plenty of craic; Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is sort of marvellous

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) runs at The Royal Lyceum Theatre until February 15th. Tickets are available from: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/pride-and-prejudice-sort-of

Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

The Panopticon – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer: Jenni Fagan

Director: Debbie Hannan

Panopticon: noun. A historical building, most often a windowed prison turning in on itself, allowing a sense of visual connection. The inhabitants are on view at all times. Never really themselves, their thoughts the only thing kept apart from their keepers. It is also the titular building in which Jenni Fagan’s 2012 book primarily takes place.

A piece refraining from vanity, self-reflective but attempting to stray from auto-biographical, there will always be a sense of ownership. Rather than force ideals of characters, roles or stereotypes, Fagan’s text allows these performers the ability to inhabit their part. In moments Fagan’s writing is self-evident, clear and emotionally obvious. Other times, more interpretative, particularly for ‘the experiment’, a warped creature of dark mass and teeth is given shape by video designer Lewis den Hertog. Whose connotations may vary, playing on the nuances of the care system, refusing to make it a clear-cut statement. Layering itself, The Panopticon has breakneck pacing at times, which whips you into a standstill with a single word, scene or character – such as central character Anais.

No recollection of her birth mother, her adoptive one stabbed in the bathroom as she watched cartoons, Anais has spent her life shuffled around a care system that wishes to check boxes, avoid paperwork, but ultimately keep her safe. Amplifying the necessity of friendship in these situations, The Panopticon houses choice characters who will help, hinder and merely exist in Anais’ journey. Bluntly, Anna Russell-Martin excels in capturing a system she did not choose to be in, but one which will echo throughout her life. Her range is bewildering in the schizophrenic lunges between attitude and vulnerability. It’s an enrapturing performance which maintains a steady involvement throughout the lengthy runtime. A counterculture daughter of a cigarillo queen, Russel-Martin is a remnant of anarchic attitude in sailor shorts.

In this intense situation, bonds are formed in the unlikeliest of circumstance. Fights, bursts of raw aggression can be an outlet of passion, frustration and necessity, but they birth connections. None more so than with Isla and Shortie, brilliantly played by Kay McAllister and Louise McMenemy. Understating her role, McAllister is integral to the development of the stomach-churning plot, while Gail Watson as Joan, among many ensemble pieces, balances with a richly cut humour with her aghast reactions, accents and physical delivery.

If it feels as though the first act is pulling punches, it seems a ploy to lure a false sense of security for the devastation of the second act. Even those for whom theatre exposes humanities’ cruellest actions, no staging, writing or performance can capture the devastations lain before us – though Fagan comes closer than other playwrights and is among the champions in a series of female creators like Meghan Tyler who refuse to sugar-coat or apologise for their publications and intent. There is a richness in her ability to tell a story, yet place it secondary to the people. These young women, boys and girl in care, hell, in prison, are a priority, something director Debbie Hannon matches.

Adapting The Panopticon for the stage, there is a difficulty in conveying a sense of ‘nanny state’, a constant watching eye in the structure of the young institution. A series of prisms, spinning in succession where scene changes will shift location, Max John’s design is superbly methodical, both in management and conception. Working as a narrative device, it’s also a tool of symbolism. These high-rising walls, containing children, secrets, violence and adoration – they see everything the others do not.

One or two performance cannot maintain pace with Russel-Martin or McAllister. Never wholly detracting, it just stands to show how easy it can be to shift from such ferocious emotions or momentum. Fagan’s piece is challenging, spitting directly into the eye of a statistical obsessed experiment, tying people down for decades. A visceral, earthy drama which pulsates long after leaving the theatre. Just as the system’s taint will remain on those who shuffle through its watchful eye. Bloody, bold and fierce, it is a masterful reversal of The Panopticon itself, no longer looking into but staring straight back out.

Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic