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“Pride and Prejudice” and its Irish Connection March 16, 2015

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture.
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We have read the book as part of our general reading curriculum, and have probably seen the TV series and the movie, so do we need to see a play adapted from Jane Austen’s celebrated novel Pride and Prejudice?  And why the Gate Theatre, one of Dublin’s cornerstone dramatic companies, in the 43rd Hong Kong Arts Festival?

Not that I remember much of the story – I’m not even sure I can claim to have read the book cover to cover, and I watched the movie haphazardly on the plane a few years ago – so I was keen to refresh my patchy memory.  After all, it’s important that as someone who claims to have studied literature I should be able to carry on a conversation about such a stalwart tome of literary fame.  Besides, I was driven by an intense sense of curiosity.

Many years ago, an old friend and mentor, who had once apparently given medical advice to Micheàl MacLiammóir, introduced me to the Gate Theatre that he and his partner Hilton Edwards founded in the 1920s.  I certainly own more copies than the average person would of his output – his memoirs Enter a Goldfish, a photocopy copy of Theatre In Ireland, a tape of his one-man show I Must Be Talking to My Friends, pirate copies of The Importance of Being Oscar and of him reading his memoirs for the BBC in five instalments and his joint effort with Eavan Boland  W. B. Yeats.  I even have a copy of Put Money in Thy Purse, his account of the filming of Orson Welles’ Othello.  Surely, aside from Yeats and Lady Gregory, MacLiammóir must have done more than anyone for drama in Ireland?  Unfortunately, despite having visited Dublin a couple of times, I have never watched a performance at the Gate.  Hence the rush to get tickets for Pride & Prejudice.

Jane Austen does a fine job with her characters.  One cannot help but feel sympathy for the harrowed Mr Bennet, surrounded by six women in his family whose strengths and weaknesses he thoroughly understands.  The “headstrong” and independent-minded Elisabeth; the sedate but somewhat dreamy Jane; the studious but not very talented Mary; the bouncy Kitty; the scatterbrain Lydia; and the hysterical Mrs Bennet, whose sole concern was to marry his daughters off to fortune, are enough to drive someone with a less robust constitution quite mad.

James Maxwell’s adaptation skilfully preserves the wit of the story and adds colour unique to the dramatic medium.  While the tortuous courtship of Mr Darcy and Lizzy Bennet takes centre stage, the crisp dialogue makes the story come to life.  Alan Stanford’s staging enlivens the production with double-takes and throwaways between Mr and Mrs Bennet.  The simple set of a small book-shelf on one side of a large room which transforms into a ballroom with the help of servants and officers is ingenious.

No stage production is ever complete without fine acting.  Lorna Quinn is undoubtedly star of the show, not only in the importance of the part, but of her studied portrayal of the conflicting feelings for Mr Darcy that rip her apart.  Sam O’Mahony as Mr Darcy, on the other hand, appears lacklustre by contrast, probably constrained by the nature of the character and its motivations.  The sisters all deliver credible performances, with Aoibhín Garrihy’s Jane standing out as the best.  Quietly stealing the show, however, are Stephen Brennan and Marion O’Dwyer as Mr and Mrs Bennet respectively.  Their small gestures and interactions totally at cross purposes to each other provide a comic edge to the play.  By the way, Deirdre Donnelly’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the very embodiment of the worst in the British class politics a couple of centuries ago.

The Gate Theatre’s production of Pride and Prejudice showed me how wrong I was to think that Jane Austen’s well-worn novel had been done to death.  It’s fresh, lively and enjoyable.  In the programme notes, I also learned that the author’s connection to Ireland is more than meets the eye.  Although she never married, she was apparently once linked, possibly romantically, to Thomas Langlois Lefroy of Limerick, who rose to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.  Whatever the excuse, kudos to the Hong Kong Arts Festival for bringing the Gate Theatre production to Hong Kong.

The Importance of Being Earnest – a fitting tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Hong Kong Arts Festival February 6, 2012

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Literature.
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It seems that in 2011 alone, there were several revivals of the Oscar Wilde evergreen The Importance of Being Earnest. A casual search online uncovered productions by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater in Manhattan, the Wingspan Theater Company in Dallas, and Rose Kingston Theatre in the UK.

The enduring popularity of the play is due in no small measure to the steady barrage of clever wordplay, one-liners, acidic barbs and throwaway witticisms it maintains throughout; but the universality and contemporary relevance of Wilde’s commentary on social hypocrisy and human duplicity would probably have a lot to do with it as well.

It is only fitting that the Hong Kong Arts Festival should choose Rose Theatre Kingston’s production directed by Stephen Unwin as the lead drama for its 40th anniversary.  With such a superb script crafted by Wilde, any half decent theatre company would be a good box-office draw and make a success of it.  That is not to belittle Rose Kingston.  Its performance is taut, fast-paced and well thought out.

I can’t help thinking that Lady Bracknell is Wilde’s favourite character – she gets most of the best lines and the most distinctive profile.  Carol Royle is just offhandish enough to be amusing, but not too disdainful to be repulsive.

Daniel Brocklebank as John Worthing and Mark Edel-Hunt as Algernon Moncrieff are credible well-heeled layabouts.  Their fight over muffins for tea at the end of the second act is hilarious and symmetrical with an earlier spat between Gwendolen and Cecily.

Faye Castelow oozes refreshing and brainy youth as Cecily, fantasising about engagement with John Worthing’s imaginary brother.  Kirsty Besterman, by comparison, presents Gwendolen less elegantly.  Their vituperative contest in thinking that they are engaged to the same man by the name of Earnest is a vivid reminder of Algernon Moncrieff’s prescient remark in the first act that women call each other sister “when they have called each other a lot of other things first”.

The set is almost minimalist but faithful to the Victorian historical context.  The large amounts of space provides plenty of room for walking about, but with a small cast the stage does look a little empty and under-designed.  The costumes also follow a similarly simple principle, light-coloured and graceful for the ladies.  The men’s are more colourful, with the contrast between Algernon’s beige suit and John Worthing’s total blackness in mourning for his invented brother particularly striking.

The Importance of Being Earnest suggests parallels with Shakespeare for me.  Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew’s obsession with the name Earnest as qualification for amorous attention harks back to Juliet’s famous line “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.  Surely the disguised identities and lovelorn couples could have been inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream?  Yet any suggestion that Wilde was as good a dramatist as Shakespeare would no doubt draw scorn from the Lady Bracknells of literary criticism.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Rose Theatre Kingston, directed by Stephen Unwin

Sunday 5th February, 2012

Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

Presented by Hong Kong Arts Festival