There is no theatre company quite like Illyria. Their experience, energy and enthusiasm is infectious and has brought them sell-out audiences across the UK for 26 years of open air touring.
This summer they returned to the beautiful grounds of Cardigan Castle to present their adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice. The castle is the recent winner of Channel 4’s Great Buildings: Restoration of the year, and the Georgian house was the perfect backdrop for the production. The small stage was almost unnecessary, aside from elevating the actors above the audience. The set (Jill Wilson) however is very effective. Georgian style blue and white fans, with cut-out hearts, frame the stage. A white bench and two chairs are accompanied by wicker baskets which double up as a dining table, writing desk and the seats of a rickety carriage. The only other props are a picture frame, a few quills and a set of coconut shells which, ingeniously, provide the sound effects for a horse-drawn carriage. There are no microphones or amplifications, only the natural acoustics of the castle walls.
Director and writer of the adaptation, Oliver Gray, handles the small cast well, familiar faces playing multiple roles and switching genders. This adds another level of humour to the exaggerated characters Austen has created. Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are played by the comically talented Josh Harvey. Something about seeing a large bearded man in a dress flirting in a shrill voice or condescending those beneath her makes the characters all the more ridiculous.
Of course, the adoption of several characters by each actor, interchanging between actors when more than one are on stage at a time, requires several costume changes which at times caused delay. This ran as smoothly as possible, with the odd joke thrown into the audience. “These are awfully long corridors”, Mr Gardiner says as he, along with his wife and Elizabeth, are led back and forward across the stage by the housekeeper at Pemberley as they await the return of an actor who plays two parts consecutively.
Gray’s adaptation, which was first performed in 2003, keeps to the original story which so many readers fell in love with, without losing any of the content or the wit and irony that its writer is known for. The two-hour production is fast paced and tightly run, leaving little room for error.
It begins with the infamous first line of Austen’s novel, spoken by Lizzie to the audience and we are immediately drawn into the play.
Rebecca Hare is commendable in her professional debut as Elizabeth Bennett. She is immediately likeable, funny and intelligent, mocking the supposed laws of society and showing her headstrong nature in her refusal to be affected by Mr Darcy’s refusal to dance with her. She also spurns Mr Collins approaches and tells Darcy exactly what she thinks of him, when his shock proposal horrifies her. Hare’s Lizzie has all the wit and charm of Austen herself.
Toby Webster is impressive, taking on the roles of three of the male characters in the production. He first appears as the handsome, but prejudiced Mr Darcy. A role that has been filled by many actors over the years from stage to screen. Webster’s Darcy is straight-faced, proud and pompous, just as we would expect. His awkwardness when pursuing Lizzie coaxes laughs from the audience. There is also a nice reference to the infamous scene in the BBC adaptation, when Webster comments that the lake at Pemberley is “good for swimming in too”. Cue cheers from the audience.
We later see a softer side to Darcy as it’s revealed he has paid off Wickham’s debts and organised his marriage to Lydia to avoid scandal. As Lizzie discovers Darcy’s involvement in events, an action replay shows another actor posing as Darcy in a purple coat, wig and hat, which seemed rather bizarre and to distract from the story. However Webster plays Darcy’s conflicted character well.
His Mr Wickham deserves most praise. He plays the wild and womanising character with confidence and dangerous charm, strutting onto the stage in a vibrant blue and white floral coat, to a chorus of ladies’ sighs. Later he is seen sprawled between two women, who kiss him playfully, as to stage right Lizzie reads a letter she has received. He also appears in a portrait at Pemberley, much to Lizzie’s surprise. Webster poses high up on the wicker baskets, frame positioned in front of his face. Some time later he is back, posing as Darcy in a different portrait. A clever idea, yet time-consuming. Although the audience did not seem to mind.
Webster also plays Mr Collins, Mr Bennet’s cousin, to whom Longbourn is entailed. Collins is arrogant and vain, choosing at first not to accept Elizabeth’s rejection of his marriage proposal. When she is firm with him, he storms off and later proposes to her friend Charlotte Lucas. He is later seen writing with vigour to the family, expressing his relief not to be involved in the family scandal of Lydia running off with the devilish Wickham.
Kathy Helps provides humour as the nerve ridden Mrs Bennett. From excitable match maker, to anxious wife and mother, Helps takes the character through a journey of emotions. She shrieks and wails, arms covering her face in distress at times, amusing the audience as she is unable to sit or stand still for moments at a time. She is just as we have pictured her from the early scenes in the novel and later representations in theatre and film productions.
Josh Harvey, in another of his many roles, is the long-suffering Mr Bennett. He carries authority in the role, as well as good and gentle nature where his daughters are concerned. Defying his wife in her insistence that Lizzie marry Collins even though she doesn’t love him.
Katherine Lunney plays several of the sisters. Her Jane is sweet-natured and admirable in her closeness to Lizzie, echoing Austen’s bond with her only sister Cassandra. Although it is her Lydia that stands out. Loud and excitable, but also rather dim, she is obsessed with finding a husband and flirts with any men she sees fit. She take a keen interest in the soldiers who appear in the town. Unfortunately her search leads her into Wickham’s arms and jeopardises her family’s name. Lydia’s announcement at the interval raised laughs as she invited any nice gentlemen to buy her a drink, noting she’d be “in the tent round the back”. This is where Illyria stand out, they project beyond the traditional realm of theatre, always looking for the opportunity to interact with their audience, while remaining universally accessible.
The actors provided their own music in this production, their voices becoming the orchestra. This had an authentic feel to it and added a nice atmosphere to the social scenes. The costumes (Pat Farmer and Curleywilly Prod) could have been nicer (they did seem a bit basic) but they served their purpose to identify the many characters and set the scene.
In the final scenes of the production, as the natural light fades, the stage lights cast shadows of Darcy and Elizabeth as they declare their love for each other. Darcy drops down onto one knee and is silhouetted against the backdrop of the Georgian House. This demonstrates all that’s great about outdoor theatre, the natural atmosphere and unique experience of your surroundings.
The chemistry between Hare and Webster (Darcy) was a joy to watch and they worked well together on stage, demonstrating the more serious themes of the novel.
Later, as they sit in the carriage, their backs to the audience, Darcy pops open a black umbrella with the words, Just Married. This was a wonderful finishing touch to the production.
Illyria have taken a worldwide best-selling novel and with just five talented actors and very few props have once again created a colourful and vibrant adaptation suitable for all.