Guest Blog: Playwright Isobel McArthur On PRIDE & PREJUDICE* (*SORT OF)
Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is currently on a UK-wide tour - but it wouldn't exist at all if it weren't for Glasgow. Andy Arnold, the artistic director of The Tron, was the one who commissioned me to write this adaptation, and I still feel that it is the spirit of Glasgow audiences and the business of actively writing for them that has given Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) its unique voice.
It was said at the time, "If you can do Austen for Glasgow audiences, you can do anything". It's hard to know who should be more offended. Regardless, there was, as many perceived it, a disparity between this city's values and those associated with this author's work.
Of course, read the novel (as I did for the very first time at that point) and you realise not only why it is so famous but how unfounded these judgements are. Adaptations of Austen may have made her stories seem starchy - but she's a riot!
Pride and Prejudice is one of the original romantic comedies. It is full of hilarious, witty, incisive satire about the utter ridiculousness of human beings - and romcom, as a genre, is well placed to deliver so much of what I think art must. It supports our preferred theatrical language in a way that could arguably be linked to the tradition of Glasgow music hall, with live singing and instrumentation, personality-led performances, tons of gags, a gentle undermining of material (and self) - and total destruction of the fourth wall.
In my honest opinion, Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a hugely enjoyable, but not necessarily easy, read. In adapting it, I was determined to make it satisfactory not just for those who knew Austen intimately, but also those who didn't know the first thing about her - or who thought they did and had dismissed her. I had, at points, been all three.
The script went through many painful iterations, as scripts often do (set in an Austen Museum in Bath, born out of an Austen-themed hen weekend, narrated entirely by a horse etc.), but the biggest problem to be solved was about perceived notions of Austen as somehow smug, lofty and - if I allow myself to use the word I really want to - posh.
There is a sense that her stories are not about normal people or relatable themes, but rather the minutiae of the lives of plummy-voiced dukes in drawing rooms. It was clear to me that a story from a historical period so defined by divisions of class and status needed to be told by servants.
All of these servants are female. Now, it's patently obvious that we need to create more opportunities for female performers to play a wider range of nuanced, interesting and varied roles - but there are also many artistic reasons why an all-female cast was so perfect. Pride and Prejudice is about the plight of five daughters. Their future hangs in the balance as a direct result of their gender. So - at its very heart, this was always a woman's story.
However, it is also set during the Napoleonic Wars, meaning a disproportionate amount of household servants at the time were women. Whilst it was crucial to have servants (those who facilitated the making of art for centuries) tell the story, it was especially wonderful to have them also be women and play the roles of all their employers, including the men, in an act of doubly-transgressive triumph.
Driving the narrative of Austen's novel is a preoccupation with matchmaking. So, in the case of many characters, all they seem bothered about is where the next party is coming from. I hope the show itself feels celebratory - in particular, of that extraordinary author and observer of human nature, Jane Austen. God, she's funny. Sit her down with a hauf-an-a-hauf in any Glasgow pub, and her patter would go down a storm, ahm tellin ye...
Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) continues its UK tour until 28 March
Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic