Pride and Prejudice
By Jane Austin
Adapted for the stage by Janet Munsil
Directed by Judy Treloar
Langham Court Theatre
October 1-18, 2014
Reviewed by Joy Fisher
“The movie wasn’t as good as the book” is a standard refrain. Whether that judgment should be applied equally to adaptations of great novels for the stage is currently up for scrutiny at Langham Court Theatre as it presents its production of Pride and Prejudice.
The audio book of Jane Austin’s 200-year-old novel runs about 11-1/2 hours. When well-regarded Victoria playwright Janet Munsil accepted a commission two years ago to adapt the book for a joint production by Theatre Calgary and the National Arts Centre, she had to condense the popular story to as close to two hours as possible.
There are perils attached to such drastic reductions. One is the danger of transforming a richly nuanced classic into a theatrical Readers Digest Condensed version of itself. That didn’t happen here, but the play does gallop from one plot point to the next, and the dramatization robbed the work of some of the delicate understatement of Austin’s prose.
For example, the necessity of repositioning the opening line of the novel had unintended consequences. The novel begins: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This line, assigned to an omniscient narrator, sets the novel up as an intentional, if subtle, critique of social mores. In the play, this line is spoken part way into the first act by Mrs. Bennet, the protagonist’s mother, a foolish woman. Thus located, it is reduced to a laugh line, and the overarching purpose of social satire goes unmarked.
All 19 of the major characters are retained in the dramatization, and drawn with such distinctness that there is never an occasion to confuse one with another. The credit for this success is attributable in equal parts to the novelist, the playwright and the capable actors who played the roles. Significant emotional depth, however, is lost in the adaptation. As I left the theatre on opening night, I overheard one audience member remark that one of the characters seemed more like a caricature than a character. “Oh well,” he added, sounding unhappy, “I suppose it had to be that way.”
Costumes, designed by Merry Hallsor, cloak this production in class. Credit is also due for the set designer (Caroline Mitic), carpenter (John Taylor) and production crew in charge of set decor (Maureen Colgan) for designing a flexible set that can quickly accommodate scene changes. As a result, the story plays straight through each of the two acts.
The confines of the Langham Court stage, combined with the large cast, did lead to some awkward moments. The repeated use of dance scenes in the first act became a bit tiresome. And, at least once, a group of characters was left onstage with nothing to do while two characters engaged in private conversation.
Why turn novels into drama? Michael Billington, theatre critic for The Guardian, tried to answer that question in a commentary he wrote a few years ago. Some novels, he conceded, might acquire more “texture,” but, he concluded, the “really great novels invariably lose more than they gain.”
Pride and Prejudice is a great novel. Pride and Prejudice, the play, was a sell-out hit in Calgary in 2012 and has since won acceptance in community theatres in Saint John, N.B., and in England. It awaits your judgment here through October 18.
Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.