Interview: 'It's Essentially a Defensive Wickham': Adrian Lukis on the Background of a Villain in BEING MR WICKHAM

'If you can write yourself a decent lead part, it's quite a sensible thing to try to!'

By: Jun. 11, 2024
Interview: 'It's Essentially a Defensive Wickham': Adrian Lukis on the Background of a Villain in BEING MR WICKHAM
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If you ask a Jane Austen fan who the villain of Pride and Prejudice is, most of them would probably say George Wickham, the charming soldier who has a hidden history with Darcy. But some, including Adrian Lukis, who played Wickham in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of the novel, would argue that things are not as black and white as one might think.

BroadwayWorld had the chance to speak with Lukis about the show’s run at the Jermyn Street Theatre. We discussed how he first got into the world of theatre, his creative process for the show and what he hopes audiences take away from it.


So starting with a bit of a general question, how did you first get into the world of theatre?

Oh my god, let's go back about five centuries - I'll do my best! [Laughs] Well, the first play I ever did was at a prep school in Devon. I was brought up in Australia and when my father came back - he was with the military - I was nine years old and was packed off to a prep school. Did my first play and absolutely fell in love with it, so that was the beginning.

And then my second school, a big military boarding school, I relentlessly pursued theatre, playing the guitar - hoping to be a famous lead guitarist in a rock band - and writing poetry. I wasn't very good at the poetry and I wasn't very good at the guitar! But the acting I was passionate about, and then I went on to university. At that point, I'd also written a play at school. I was quite interested in being a writer but ended up going to university with some quite big brains in terms of the writing, and so I decided perhaps my strengths lay elsewhere. So I did the acting!

But you did write this show! So what made you want to write and perform Being Mr Wickham?

The simple answer is, the life of an actor is quite tough. If you can write yourself a decent lead part, it's quite a sensible thing to try to! [Laughs] It wasn't really that - I'm being slightly cheeky about it. It provides me with a great opportunity to do a one-man show, which is wonderful.

Essentially, I wrote it because at the time, I was getting a bit fed up with a lack of work, which happens to almost all of us. I'd had a couple of months out of work and was sitting around, waiting for the agent to call, feeling fed up with everything. I'd always wanted to write - I always talked about writing, I've written throughout my life, comedy sketches and stuff. But suddenly, this idea came about. It was slightly provoked by watching a guy in his late 50s. He was obviously once quite good-looking, but he'd gone to seed a bit - the hair had thinned and he's a bit potbellied. He's trying to chat up a barmaid, who was about 24 years old, and just thought, “Mate . . .”

[Laughs]

He was coming out with all his best lines! And it was fascinating because he didn't recognise [it]. He just thought, “Well, I'm still a charming guy!” But he was not in this particular situation and I thought that was quite interesting. I'd also done quite a lot of prepping before about Jane Austen because I’d written another show looking at all the novels of Jane Austen and talking about her life and critical reception of different books - quite a big undertaking!

So I’d got all this knowledge about Regency England, or a certain amount at that point. These things combined - wanting to write, the example of the middle-aged man being blind to his own inadequacies and the world of Austen, which I knew something about. Then I just thought, “Oh, Wickham, actually!” I played the character. It'd be interesting to see what a man like that would say if he could say, and that started it.

And can you tell us a bit about your creative process for the work?

Struggle, difficulty and occasional agony relieved by moments of joy and relief, I suppose! [Laughs] It's been very interesting. At one point, there was a deadline because Bath Theatre Royal said that they would put the play on for two nights. Therefore, I had to write the play, which is quite a good prod to get you going. I don't really have a process!

Interview: 'It's Essentially a Defensive Wickham': Adrian Lukis on the Background of a Villain in BEING MR WICKHAM
Photo Credit: James Findlay

 I'm not seasoned enough to be able to tell you a kind of structure I have. But what I have found is walking around the parks and walking around London, mainly in the green spaces, turning things over. I have discovered that you can self-record on your iPhone, which is quite a useful thing! A line might spring into my mind, I think, “That's quite good,” and rather than forget it or lose it as I would have done in the past, I just make a note. Then I riff on it a bit.

Rereading Pride and Prejudice quite thoroughly, of course, though I know it pretty well, and finding the bits that are said about him, what he says about himself, what is said about him by Darcy, establishing the basic facts - he was brought up at Pemberly, his father was a steward . . . And then embellishing!

I decided one day, “Oh, when he first met Darcy!” So here's the old old Mr. Darcy, who employed this man as a steward. In my play, the wife has run off, which I think says something about Wickham’s desire to have women and mistrust. There's a whole story there! But when he first meets little boy Darcy, you invent could anything!

I don't know where he [Wickham] went to school. I think Darcy probably would have gone to Eton. And then I mention a very barbaric school, which I invented the name of and thought, “Well, I've read a certain amount about schools in the period and Jane Austen famously loathed school, loathed school mistresses.” I read that children were dying at school and they were often just abandoned, and I thought, “Well, that's interesting.” And so my Wickham is at a school where something terrible happens to one of the boys - the implication is that the headmaster is not only a sadist but probably a paedophile. It's where Wickham learns to fight back. 

But essentially, what I tried to do in the play is to say, “You think you're great? You really think I'm a villain?” He says it nicely, but “Look into your own heart! It's very easy to sit back and judge someone like me and look at someone like Darcy as being the hero of the hour. But Darcy didn't have to contend with making money - he's got money. I was brought up with very few prospects.” This is Wickham’s excuse, anyway.

 So it's essentially a defensive Wickham. And I thought, if Wickham is a charming man, which we know he is, and he deceives Elizabeth, who's very bright, it shows a real skill at manipulation. I don't think he’s psychopathic, but I think he reads people very quickly and adjusts his behaviour accordingly. 

I could have written something very dark, a very dark play. “Nobody understands me, I'm taking laudanum, I've been a robber, I've been a thief all my life. I have a prostitute lying in the next room . . .” That's what people will expect. But actually, what I've made is a man of not great means, but he wants to win the audience. Each night, he's charming them - he's telling him about how tough his life has been and he's flirting with the audience! And if at the end, people come away and think, “Bloody hell, he's really good fun, isn't he? But, hang on, it's Wickham! He's terrible!” Yeah. That's the idea. So in my play, he does what he does in Pride and Prejudice.

And what was it like performing the show in New York for American audiences?

It was great! They were really sweet. There's an appetite for that sort of work and I hope there's an appetite in London! Quite a literate bunch. It was 59 [59E59 Theaters], so a lot of Upper East, Upper West, a lot of people who knew their Austen and their onions and and they very obviously enjoyed it. There are a lot of Austen fans out there and they want more! It's very limited - there're only six books.

I've observed the morality of the period, because Wickham’s speaking in 1840-ish. But the Americans I met loved it! The show was sold out. They said that they wish they kept it on for longer. The reviews are very good, I'm glad to say. And they were very a intelligent, nice bunch. So it was a success!

And finally, how would you describe the show in one word?

Revolutionary.

Being Mr Wickham runs until 22 June at the Jermyn Street Theatre.




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