Interview: Isobel McArthur Talks PRIDE AND PREJUDICE* (SORT OF)

The Jane Austen retelling is now in the West End

By: Oct. 23, 2021
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Interview: Isobel McArthur Talks PRIDE AND PREJUDICE* (SORT OF)
Isobel McArthur in
Pride and Prejudice* (sort of)

From its first run at Glasgow's Tron theatre in 2018, and its 2019 UK tour, writer and co-director of Pride and Prejudice* (sort of) Isobel McArthur's adaptation of Jane Austen's iconic novel is retold by five young female servants with Georgian petticoats: all wearing marigolds and Doc Martens. Now, it comes storming into the West End - but without forgetting its roots.

"This is a piece that has come from Glasgow, and we are interested in bringing more and more people into the theatre where they may otherwise perceive an exclusivity," the theatre-maker says, speaking on Zoom. "Whether that's intellectual, social etiquette or class exclusivity. Our show does not set out to be a history lesson; it is a show for modern audiences."

To that end, McArthur's irreverent piece reshapes Jane Austen. She deploys karaoke as an entry point for audiences to involve, entertain and immerse them in the world of the characters. "It's fascinating to have a conversation about how you can make old things seem new," she says. "I have tried to make sure that the characters can be viewed and enjoyed for how funny or brilliant or life-affirming they really are. Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is a reimagining of the story."

Unlike most adaptations, no prior knowledge of the Jane Austen universe is required. "You don't need to know a thing about the classic book, and frankly you don't even need to like it," she continues. "But if you do know the book inside out then you will find it has been reimagined with the care and respect that it deserves. Equally, if you are petrified about the story being remade in this manner, please be assured I love the source material just as much as you do. We are hugely indebted to Austen and if it's good then it is so because of her."

Questions of status and class are a major preoccupation of Jane Austen's characters and storytelling - how then does this all-female Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort of) tackle that? "Firstly, we bring the show closer to home: five female actors arrive on stage and some of them speak like me (with accents including Mancunian, Scottish and Northern Irish). Every voice that we hear is of interest because of the multi-role factor. When we talk about class and regional accents, we start to distinguish accent and vocal quality - as an industry and culture, we're still light years behind."

Interview: Isobel McArthur Talks PRIDE AND PREJUDICE* (SORT OF)
Pride and Prejudice* (sort of)

Mixing Austen's classic novel with pop anthems including "You're So Vain" and "Holding Out For A Hero" plays a crucial part in the storytelling. (Naturally, the former is addressed to the brooding Mr Darcy.) "I needed a musical language and karaoke felt like a natural device because I think it is universal. Essentially, at the heart of this show is Glasgow entertainment and that is very much music hall. Karaoke is for everybody, and it is about the fact that anybody is allowed to get up and have a go."

Still, politics can't help permeating this female-driven production. Indeed, a recent survey conducted by playwright Jennifer Tuckett, in partnership with the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, Equity, Stage Directors UK and the December Group, revealed more than 60% of women across all roles in UK theatre are considering leaving the industry, with 85% worried gender inequality will worsen post-pandemic.

Certainly, Austen's tales of the female condition have arguably been reduced, by over-adaptation and faulty emphasis, to ribbons and dreams of rich men and their lovely houses - to advertisements for being a traditional wife in the Regency style. McArthur set out to uncover some harsh truths in the iconic novel. "Look, relationships haven't really changed over the past 200 years. Class struggles haven't, gender struggles haven't changed and that is what is very amusing, as well as relatable," she says. "I think it's living in that specific space: it's relevant because every single character in the novel is recognisable as somebody that we all know."

This London production honours and transcends the source material and feels as richly rewarding a theatrical experience as any original play. Certainly, in McArthur's adaptation, there is a sense of a dialogue between the 19th and 21st centuries. Within the show, the cast are lightning fast, natural and quicksilver in the storytelling.

"What we must remember is that Jane Austen is far cleverer than me or anyone else working on this show; she was a genius. Pride and Prejudice (*Sort of) has sumptuous costumes, glorious backdrops, and a timeless plot. It is a play with songs but it's front-footed and audience-facing - and it is no less Pride and Prejudice for being any of those things," says McArthur.

As we emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic, audience habits may have changed but the most expensive seats are still getting more expensive - according to supply and demand. The show's producer David Pugh is proud that there are no premium seats during the London run: preview prices range from £9.50 to £25, for example.

McArthur herself is not a fan of premium prices. "How on earth can you expect to get people in when your prices are prohibitive?" she asks. "If a student can get the best view in the house for £25, then I'm thrilled.

"The very spirit of Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is about saying: here we are, players in service to you, the audience, and we owe you a fantastic evening. Not an evening that makes you feel like you need to study essays or authors before you come. But an evening that you will come away from uplifted and enlightened - and one that brings the audience together in that uniquely communal way that only live theatre can."

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) runs at the Criterion Theatre until 13 February, 2022

Interview by Carl Woodward

Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic, Tony McGee


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