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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.