It is a truth universally acknowledged that any Oxford college garden in a summer heatwave simply must be occupied by outdoor theatre. The majority of the plays on offer are Shakespeare; perhaps because these were originally performed in open-air theatres such as the Globe, or by travelling players, and as such do not necessarily need elaborate staging. There is, however, something to be said for using an outdoor stage to advantage, and the perfectly manicured back lawns and stately, 18th century buildings of Trinity feel like a much more appropriate venue for an adaptation of that era’s most popular novel than any indoor stage could.
Pride and Prejudice is a tricky beast to adapt, whether for stage, television or film. It seems simple – the archetypal romance with a proud, brooding hero and a witty heroine – but, really, what is the point of creating just another version of that? The real strength of the novel lies in its subtlety, its humanity, and its eccentric but instantly recognisable minor characters. Any adaptation that fails to capture that mix will fail to do anything more than tell the audience a story they already know.
So, does the Oxford Theatre Guild’s production of Peter Kenvyn Jones’ adaptation succeed? Well, in the most part – it does. The central character of Elizabeth Bennet is portrayed with warmth and intelligence by Laurence Goodwin, and the script gives the character the room to breathe and grow, which makes the whole story believable – saving her from appearing fickle or shallow. The staging is intelligent, with one low-key set managing to represent every location with merely a piano and a bookcase. The minor characters, too, are a near-perfect mix of vanities, insecurities and comic relief, with Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins (Helen Taylor and Alistair Nunn) as particular highlights.
The real problem is the major supporting characters, who are most affected by the cuts required to squeeze the story into the confines of a play. Mr Darcy becomes a dark cipher in the corner of the stage, only really being humanised in the final scene. This works reasonably well with his character, but does lessen the power of the central relationship, and could well lead the audience to question why Elizabeth is even interested in him. He is at least true to the character in the novel, however, which cannot quite be said for Mr Bingley and Jane Bennet, whose characters manage to retain their slight shallowness while losing their inherent goodness. Jane seems arch, Bingley callous, and their secondary romance does not become the natural match of sweet tempers and kind hearts that it should be.
Ultimately, though, these failures do not destroy the overall charm of the production. It is hard not to be won over by the warmth, the wit and, of course, the mellow evening sunshine surrounding the characters as they stumble along the course of true love – which, as some other playwright commented, never did run smooth.
Pride and Prejudice, performed by Oxford Theatre Guild, is showing at Trinity College gardens from the 9th to 20th July, 8pm. Tickets £15 /£12, available from www.ticketsoxford.com or by phoning 01865 305305.
PHOTOS/ Joseph Kenneway