Approaching one of Austen’s most celebrated stories with some snobbery, Isobel McArthur decided there was only one way to tell Pride & Prejudice. Emma Bentley finds out more.
Maybe, like me, you’re wondering if we really need another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, particularly in this theatre climate where stories of white upper classes are repeatedly parading over our television screens and auditoriums. However, after forty minutes on the phone with Writer and Performer Isobel McArthur I can see that hers isn’t just any adaptation with a twist. This is a full blown, intersectional feminist reworking.
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), is embarking on a six-month tour of the country, starting at the Bristol Old Vic on 7 September. Anyone who’s booking a ticket can forget, in McArthur’s words, any “pre-emptive cultural expectations” they might have about the novel and “Colin Firth emerging from a lake, [yeah that’s a thing], corsetry, bonnets, drawing rooms, plummy voices, RP accents.” This is a production written by a woman with the political agenda of having six women on stage. McArthur isn’t an Austenite and even approached reading the novel for the first time (aged 28) with some “inverted snobbery” about the potential for the story to be “culturally lofty.” But she combats this with the concept that we are watching the servants tell the story, with the actors performing up to six characters each, and each of them running around from start to finish “like a blue arse fly.”
As an actor, “doing the run around” is something that feels integral to the show not just for herself but for the rest of the company. McArthur tells me how she wants to be in a show “that requires all of your commitment and energy, other than the kind of shows – and I‘ve been in them, where you sit for 40 pages.” I mention The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre and how at the end, 20 actors come to stand around in a semi-circle for about 2 minutes. These people may just be known as supernumeraries, “but they aren’t just clocking off their plumbing jobs to go on stage at the National Theatre. They’re desperate to be taken seriously [in order] to formulate really fulfilling creative acting careers. So, to have those creative minds that are so willing and so ferociously making and conceiving of ideas all the time [in a room with you], and to have them sitting around, then coming on to stand in a semi-circle…!” McArthur doesn’t need to finish the sentence, we both agree it’s depressing and ludicrous.
This view is borne out of the necessity for McArthur to make work, despite the budget behind it. “The thing I will never be able to get past is how long my contemporaries and I had to operate on utter shoe stringery. We had nothing and no one and all the personnel was on a voluntary basis or someone’s uncle might be able to lend his car so that we could go and do a tech, and so the idea that you could have 20 people at your finger-tips, you would just make the most exceptional thing! You’d have dance routines and movement pieces; you’d make the set out of human bodies and I know for a fact that if they were all actors, they’d be delighted to do it.”
And by the sound of it, with only six actors McArthur has done exactly that, creating a work which is “front footed, with singing, Glasgow musical hall, live band, karaoke love songs that you can sing along to and loads of gags.” Being obsessed with gender blind casting myself I can’t help but ask her about playing the male roles. She tells me, “I recommend it to anyone, if you are wondering what is going on, on a societal basis that makes you feel somehow lesser in some way, go and play a handsome, rich man because everybody will stare at you, and come up to you on and off stage and tell you how confident, self-assured and alluring you are.” She is of course talking about playing Mr Darcy, a part that has given her the realisation that, “men, occupying those societal roles can do nothing. And them doing nothing makes them all the more exciting and attractive and authoritative.” For McArthur, there was never any worry that these characters wouldn’t be totally believable.
But it is playing these parts, regardless of whether you are sending them up or not, that I find worrying about rehashing period dramas. Even if you’re a woman playing Mr Darcy, you’re still giving him a space. Having this conversation with McArthur and seeing the need to tell the story with servants as narrators, I am swung back to the ‘*sort of’ part of this production. It makes it not only a fun but an important adaption. “Servants have facilitated all the things that have happened to the people eminent in recorded history,” she tells me. “Jane Austen wouldn’t have been able to write this book without servants to change her bedding and empty the chamber pots and all that kind of thing, and that’s the same with all portraiture, all prose, all concertos. That, without the servants there to keep everything going nobody could be afforded to live the life of an artist and therefore we wouldn’t have the art.” I wonder if I’d be more productive if I didn’t have to do my own washing and clean the loo? For McArthur, having worked in hospitality for 10 years herself, she is well placed to write from this perspective. “The disdain that you could be regarded with by members of the public, however good you are at your job, however polite and charming and brilliant, it’s something that stays with you for life and makes you think ‘okay, there’s something fundamental to be learned here.’” I suppose then, despite one’s class, we all have our own love stories to tell.
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is playing at the Bristol Old Vic from the 7 September and touring until March 2020 . For more information, Visit the Bristol Old Vic website.