Pride and Prejudice: A melodious comedy of manners

FIRST published in 1813, Jane Austen’s piercing observation of society, social customs and snobbery, has enjoyed a popularity granted to few novels. Pride and Prejudice has become one of the best known and best loved works in English literature, and to date has sold in excess of 20m copies.

Pride and Prejudice: A melodious comedy of manners

Whether you were introduced to it at school, or first read it curled up on a window seat at home, you aren’t likely to forget the forthright Lizzie, the obnoxious Mr Darcy, the odious Mr Collins.

And of course it sparked off hundreds of sequels, adaptations, reinterpretations, with every Austen fan searching for more on this fascinating world, and every writer trying to approach from a new angle. Movies and TV series have taken the tale out of the drawing room and into the open air.

Laurence Olivier sneered at Greer Garson, Keira Knightley swooned over Matthew Macfadyen. The courtship of Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth brought a seismic surge to BBC viewing, with the now legendary Darcy In Soaking Shirt recently voted top ranking in a British poll of the most memorable TV moment. On the novel front, we have had everything from murder to abduction, passion to intrigue, surrounding the Bennet girls and the social circles into which they have married. There is even a hugely popular series of zombie novels based on Austen’s work. We’ve seen it all.

Well, not quite all. But that last gap is about to be filled in fine style. Irish Jane Austen fans could be in for a treat this August with the premiere of Pride and Prejudice — The Musical. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the book, the Lyric Theatre Belfast and the Everyman Palace in Cork will stage an all-singing, all-dancing version, opening Wednesday in Cork. After the Cork run it will move to the Lyric in Belfast.

It’s not quite the first ever of its kind — there was a Broadway musical version way back in 1959, starring Polly Bergen, Farley Granger and Hermione Gingold — but certainly a first for Europe.

This challenging adaptation, by Richard Croxford (artistic director at the Lyric) and Mark Dougherty, stars Hazel Gardner as Lizzie and Neil McDermott as Mr Darcy. McDermott is better known to millions as Ryan Malloy in EastEnders.

“A new musical, and one as ambitious as this, is something the city of Cork is thrilled to partner and we are especially delighted that the premiere will take place here,” says Michael Barker-Caven, artistic director at Everyman. “Our two theatres have a proud and illustrious history so here’s to a successful long term relationship as rewarding and as keenly felt as that of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.”

“I’ve always loved the book,” confesses Richard Croxford. “We studied it at school and I really got into the atmosphere of the story. You never forget it, and I really wanted to stage it.”

Croxford’s own career has spanned the theatrical spectrum, and he has worked in all forms and genres of drama, but musicals are a special passion. “I always thought that Pride and Prejudice simply screamed out for that treatment.”

So much of the story in the novel, he explains, develops through Lizzie’s thoughts and feelings, through letters, inward thoughts, musings.

“That’s very hard to express effectively on stage. I did think of putting in a narrator, but it does distance you from the players. Then I realised that in a musical you can get it all across through the songs. Most of the characters sing at the ball in Meriton, and we get a very clear idea of their characters from that.”

Does Mr Darcy sing? “Absolutely. He is a baritone, naturally, and has several very effective songs. When he hands Elizabeth the letter explaining all, most of the content is a very powerful song and she joins in towards the end. And then there is a love duet when they finally get together.” One of Mr Darcy’s songs, reveals Richard, is called ‘First Impressions’, which was the original title of the novel.

As practicality — and indeed touring — demand, the show is very simply set, in picture-frame style, where those lovely Empire gowns can be seen to their best advantage.

“The Pemberley set, though, is just stunning,” enthuses Croxford. “I don’t want to say anything about that here — I want it to be a total surprise.”

Croxford has written the lyrics for the songs, while Mark Dougherty created the music to which they are set. How exactly can that work? “We had a good notion of where we wanted songs, and we worked from that,” says Croxford. “I would put down the idea of what I wanted the song to be about, and Mark has this incredible dramatic sense and knew where and how it should go.”

Apparently, it was quite a trouble-free process. “Sometimes he’s adjusted the rhythm to fit what I had in mind, but most of the time we’ve been on the same wavelength.”

Unfortunately there will be no repeat of that wet shirt scene from the TV series.

“It wouldn’t really fit into the stage set,” laughs Croxford. When the news broke of Colin Firth winning most memorable TV moment, though, they did get a few publicity pictures taken of Neil McDermott in the same mode.

Finally, what does Croxford really think Jane Austen would say to his new venture? “I think she’d be delighted. We’ve been very true to the book’s spirit and I’d like to think we’re giving it a new lease of life.”

Lizzie, he points out, was an amazing heroine, way ahead of her time. “She spoke of what she believed in, which women weren’t meant to do. Austen should be applauded for that.”

nPride and Prejudice — the Musical, Everyman, Cork, Aug 14-31, 8pm nightly. Booking on www.everymancork.com or 021-4501673.

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